Though his childhood was limited by a congenital deformity that left him with a pronounced limp, William Dickinson Washington went on to create one of the most iconic paintings in the canon of Southern art. His artistic skill and passion were evident early on and, as a young man of only twenty living in Washington, D.C., 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, then under the direction of the German romantic artist Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, 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, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary War era South Carolina. 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 physical impairment, 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 departure from the faculty in 1870. Following brief trips to Washington, D.C. and Hot Springs, Virginia, where he sought a cure for his seriously deteriorating health, the artist returned to Lexington and died at year’s end.
Washington’s most famous painting, The Burial of Latané, depicts a poignant and powerfully human moment in Civil War history. The story of Confederate Captain William Samuel Latané’s tragic death in hand-to-hand combat in June 1862 and subsequent burial by a cadre of courageous 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 canvas in the summer of 1864. His composition recalls popular old master prints of the lamentation for Christ and was meant to align the suffering and death of the valiant young officer with the fate of the Confederacy. Populated predominantly by female figures, the painting was also hailed as a celebration of the role of women in support of the seceded South. The Burial of Latané originally hung in the window of Franck’s Frame Shop in Richmond, which became a place of pilgrimage, before being moved to the Virginia State Capitol. When distributed as a print later in the 1860s, it “became for the South, an icon of nationalism that remained in the hearts and homes of Southerners well into the twentieth century.”
Washington exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, National Academy of Design, and 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, Museum of the Confederacy, University of South Carolina and Morris Museum of Art.