In the wake of the Confederate forces’ defeat in the Civil War, Southerners found themselves in need of vindication and consolation, in equal measure. Faced with devastating human, economic, and territorial losses, they grasped for both political and personal justification for the heavy toll. It was into that void that the Lost Cause narrative was born. Rooted in romanticism and reverence, this ideology centered on the nobility of the Southern struggle and the heroic sacrifice of Southern soldiers. By clinging to such nostalgic notions, many white apologists developed a sense of selective amnesia and perpetuated a distorted historical record. It didn’t take long then—as Smithsonian senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey details in The Civil War and American Art—for Lost Cause mythology to find expression in postbellum fine art. This work, as well as William D. Washington’s The Burial of Latané, epitomize that inclination.

Since 1868, Gustave Henry Mosler’s painting The Lost Cause has been an iconic presence in Southern culture, widely distributed as a chromolithograph in the years after its creation and cherished for the sense of loss it conveys. That it was created by the son of Jewish immigrants who was loyal to the Union might be thought ironic unless his synergy with the Confederate veteran who commissioned the painting is considered. Born in New York, Mosler began his career as an illustrator and war correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. In that capacity, he came to know the Ohio River Valley, the West Virginia region near Huntington, and the south-central area of Kentucky. Mosler abandoned his journalistic career in 1863 and traveled to Europe to enroll at the art academy in Düsseldorf, Germany. There, he studied with Albert Kindler and Heinrich Karl Anton Mücke, before moving on to Paris in 1865 for six months’ instruction under Ernest Hébert. Upon his return to Cincinnati in 1866, Mosler met Albert Seaton Berry, a former major in the Confederate forces and future US congressman for whom he painted The Lost Cause. Both men had been present at the Battle of Perryville, the bloodiest in the Kentucky campaign; Mosler’s drawing of that confrontation had been published in Harper’s on November 1, 1862.

Mosler remained in Cincinnati working primarily as a portrait painter between 1866 and 1874, when he moved to Europe. Prior to settling in Paris, he studied with Karl Theodor von Piloty in Munich. Once established in France, he began to create historical genre paintings, one of which, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was the hit of the Paris season of 1879 and was subsequently purchased by the French government. In the years that followed, Mosler became a member of the French Academy and won the Silver Medal for Painting at the Paris Exposition of 1889. In 1894, the artist relocated to New York; his work from these later years depicted patriotic episodes from American history. A member of the National Academy of Design, Mosler is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum, Butler Institute, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The Lost Cause “takes as its subject the devastation of the war in the South as it affected, not the wealthy plantation owner, but rather the yeoman farmer of the highlands.” Mosler placed the sagging Confederate veteran—head bowed, leaning on his musket and awkwardly attired in heavy seasonal gear—outside a deserted log cabin. The dilapidated structure stands in a landscape teeming with the promise of spring, a powerful and poignant contrast to the soldier’s obvious despair.