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James Walker

On July 1, 1863, Union and Confederate forces clashed in rural Pennsylvania in a conflict that shifted the course of the Civil War and the face of a nation. Following three days of intense fighting, over 50,000 casualties were recorded, marking the Battle of Gettysburg as the war’s bloodiest. The losses suffered on those fields—and the momentum the victory afforded the federal army—inspired Abraham Lincoln’s historic Gettysburg Address, including the president’s call for the nation’s “new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Using a meticulously researched study of the battle’s particulars as his guide, the British-born artist James Walker created a massive painting illustrating the dramatic conclusion of combat. Commissioned in 1864 and completed in 1870, Walker’s grand canvas—measuring twenty feet wide and executed with precise technical skill—is an epic visual record of the assault, detailing regimental positions, combat vignettes, noble steeds, victory, and defeat. When publicly displayed for the first time in Boston, journalists hailed the work’s sweep and substance, praising its “remarkable minuteness and comprehensiveness and . . . fidelity” and predicted it would “take rank among the first of historical paintings,” endorsements echoed by several of the surviving generals depicted. One hundred and fifty years after the event it memorializes, Walker’s crowning career achievement stands in testament to America’s past, painful and proud at turns, and to the endurance of the democratic ideal.

 

 

 

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