Artist gives glimpse into Civil War through paintings

By Katie Demeria

When traveling to Civil War battlefields throughout Virginia, artist Mort Kunstler sees more than the average visitor — he gets a glimpse of the past. And his artwork allows others to see the same.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1931, Kunstler has been painting images of historic American Civil War scenes since the 1980s. He has established himself as one of the most popular Civil War artists in the country, consistently earning acclaim for his work.

In 1999, former Virginia Governor James Gilmore declared a “Mort Kunstler Day.” Four years later, he was named the official artist for the 2003 film “Gods and Generals.”

Earlier this year he was one of only six previous artists to be honored by the Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia, and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts will also hold an exhibit featuring his work in November.

For Kunstler, it all stems from a simple love for painting.

“I have to tell you that I just love painting pictures,” Kunstler said. “And I enjoyed it from the time when I was a little kid, and I think I knew I was going to be an artist eventually, although I really wanted to be the centerfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

After receiving a great deal of critical acclaim for painting a piece done in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1988, Kunstler focused his efforts on Civil War scenes.

But this is likely to be his last year devoted to the war.

“I’ve done so many paintings, we’ve had at least 10 or 12 books on my Civil War art, but we have a new book coming out this fall called ‘The New Nation,’ which is going to focus on the Revolutionary War period and George Washington,” he said.

Kunstler will do one final Civil War painting, which will commemorate the war’s 150th anniversary, to be released in April 2015.

Until then, though, he will be releasing a few more paintings featuring scenes from the War Between the States. One of those, to be released in May of this year, depicts a scene in Staunton. The painting is called “…None to Caress,” a line taken from a cadet’s quote.

“The scene is a dreary day, and the girls are out on the balconies at Mary Baldwin College, and they’re smiling and cheering and waving,” Kunstler said. “The cadets are young and handsome, and Jackson is bedraggled and mud spattered.”

The cadets are from the Virginia Military Institute, and Kunstler had the image approved by Colonel Keith Gibson of VMI.

Getting approval from an expert, Kunstler said, is vital to his reputation as an artist.

“It’s very easy to be accurate. My reputation is for accuracy, but it’s not all that difficult, because all you do is find an expert in a particular area, and run it by him and see what he has to say,” Kunstler said.

Over the years, Kunstler said he has developed an eye for architecture, recognizing buildings that were built during the Civil War era when he visits various locations.

“Almost all the ideas come from me,” he said. “I went to Staunton specifically, for example, and I looked at a building that was attractive. By visiting, and just looking for a building that strikes me, it then evolves into the picture.

“Once I spot the building, I can tell about the period it was built. And then I confirm it. Then I find out what took place in front of that building, and use the building as a backdrop. That’s how this painting came about.”

Kunstler said he is very appreciative of Virginia — he has enjoyed a strong following in Winchester.

“My ambition is to do George Washington’s headquarters in Winchester,” he said. “I’d love to have Washington in Winchester.”

A painter all his life, Kunstler said he showed a lot of talent when he was young. He went to New York’s Pratt Institute to study illustration during a time, he said, when it was a dying field.

During his time there, Kunstler said art was going out and television advertising was replacing the money going into print media. But he stuck with it, he said.

“I set out to be an illustrator, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

After finding Civil War art by happenstance, Kunstler has painted images of Strasburg, several set in Front Royal and others set in Winchester.

“I’ve done many, all over the state of Virginia,” he said. “I love painting. I love pushing the paintbrush, and being left alone to mind my own business.”

To learn more about Kunstler and purchase his work, go to www.mortkunstler.com.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com