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Although his childhood was limited by a congenital deformity that left him with a physical disability, William Dickinson Washington went on to create an iconic painting in the canon of Southern art. Dating to 1864, The Burial of Latané depicts a gripping human moment in Civil War history while underscoring a pervasive—but flawed—Southern ideology about the war, its outcome, its participants, and the root of the conflict: the enslavement of African Americans.

Washington’s artistic skill and passion were evident early on and, as a young man of only twenty living in Washington, DC, he worked with the esteemed history painter Emanuel Leutze, who encouraged him to pursue further studies at the Düsseldorf Academy. He enrolled at the academy in 1853 and began to create his own historical genre scenes. Washington returned to the District of Columbia in 1856 and became deeply involved in the local art scene. There, he became acquainted with the art patron William Wilson Corcoran and maintained a studio above that of the portrait artist Charles Bird King. He remained in Washington until 1861, painting portraits and historical works, including a series based on the military maneuvers of Francis Marion, South Carolina’s “Swamp Fox” of the Revolutionary War. An oil study for one of these paintings, Marion and His Men in the Swamp, is held by the Johnson Collection.

When Virginia seceded from the Union and the Civil War began, Washington went south to Richmond. Unable to actively serve in General Lee’s Army due to his pronounced limp, the artist was given a brief appointment in the Virginia State Engineers Office. After the fall of Richmond in April 1865, Washington fled to England for a year. Upon his return to America in 1866, he set up a studio in New York from which he sent several paintings to the National Academy of Design. In April 1868, Washington accepted a commission from Virginia Military Institute to paint memorial portraits of VMI alumni lost in the war and was subsequently offered a teaching post at the college. Despite his popularity on campus, a lack of funds necessitated Washington’s release from the faculty in 1870. Following brief trips to Washington, DC, and Hot Springs, Virginia, where he sought a cure for his seriously deteriorating health, the artist soon returned to Lexington and died at year’s end.

The story of Confederate Captain William Samuel Latané’s death in hand-to-hand combat in June 1862 and subsequent burial by a cadre of plantation matrons had inspired writer John Reuben Thompson’s poem “The Burial of Latané,” which was published in the July-August 1862 edition of the Southern Literary Messenger. Drawing on both the factual account and Thompson’s mournful ode, Washington began work on The Burial of Latané in the summer of 1864. His composition recalls popular old master prints of the lamentation for Christ and was meant to align the death of the young officer with the fate of the Confederacy. However, as senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Eleanor Harvey wrote in The Civil War and American Art, “the image carried another layer of Southern mythology: that of the devoted black slave, devoted to the family he served, here mourning the fallen Confederate soldier. Many planters clung to the reassuring notion that their enslaved servants . . . were almost like family. However, as the war progressed, evidence revealed that this idea was largely fiction. Washington’s inclusion of a devoted black man played into this Southern stereotype. The Burial of Latané supported the long-embedded idea of willing black subservience to white rule and of white Southern women’s devotion to the precepts of the Old South. Neither concept would survive the war.”

The Burial of Latané originally hung in the window of Franck’s Frame Shop in Richmond, which became a place of pilgrimage, attracting hordes of visitors; it was subsequently moved to the Virginia State Capitol to accommodate viewers, who were encouraged to contribute to the war effort. When distributed as a print later in the 1860s, it “became for the South, an icon of nationalism.”

Washington exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design, and the Washington Art Association during his short career. The Virginia Military Institute is the largest repository of the artist’s work, which is also represented in the collections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of the Confederacy, the University of South Carolina, and the Morris Museum of Art.