Painter brushes up against his subjects

September 16, 2006|by ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN - Mort Kunstler tries to get into the minds of his subjects when he paints.

"I'm into every person there," he said, gesturing to one of his paintings. "I put myself into each guy. What would he be doing? What would he be thinking?"

While painting his newest release, "Maryland, My Maryland," he imagined himself at the scene. It was June 25, 1863, and Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was crossing the Potomac River at Boteler's Ford.

The troops were excited as they waded through the water and climbed up the riverbank. They thought they were entering friendly territory, and hoped to find new shoes in Gettysburg, Pa, Kunstler said.


Someone started singing what now is the state song, "Maryland, My Maryland," and an officer ordered the 26th North Carolina regimental band to play the song while thousands of soldiers forded the river.

A few days later, more than 50,000 soldiers died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

"Maryland, My Maryland" will be on display at the Benjamin Art Gallery in Hagerstown. Kunstler will be at the gallery today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a show featuring his paintings.

Kunstler said the Civil War provides thousands of events that never have been painted before.

"Maryland, My Maryland," which took two months to paint, is one of those scenes.

"It's opening up a little window on the past," he said.

Kunstler calls himself a "narrative artist."

"Little stories are going on all over the place," he said.

In "Maryland, My Maryland," soldiers hold their belongings and weapons high above their heads as they wade through the river. Some stripped off their clothes. Men walked barefoot because their shoes had holes in the soles. Horses strained as they pulled artillery up the bank.

Kunstler researches each painting. He visited the site of the crossing at Boteler's Ford years ago, he said.

Kunstler finds expert historians in the subject who must approve every detail, he said. Kunstler worked from photographs of the actual 26th North Carolina regimental band for "Maryland, My Maryland".

About two-thirds of Kunstler's Civil War work focuses on Confederate subjects because it reflects the public's interest, he said.

"Everyone loves to be patted on the back and told they did a good job," he said. "And I get great appreciation with Southern subject matter."

Kunstler also sees more to the Civil War era than battles and generals.

"I was the first artist to paint everyday life," he said. "Women existed. Children existed in the Civil War ... soldiers said goodbye to their wives."

"Look at how peaceful all these scenes are," Kunstler said, gesturing around the Benjamin Art Gallery.

The gallery bought the original "Maryland, My Maryland," and Kunstler said he is delighted that the painting will stay in Maryland, "where it belongs."

If you go

What: Mort Knstler Art Show and Signing

When: Today, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Where: Benjamin Art Gallery, Hagerstown

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