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Best known for his masterful and meticulous scenes of military engagements and nineteenth-century life in the American West, Rufus Zogbaum’s circle of acquaintances was wide and diverse. He mingled with naval commodores as well as emerging luminaries in American art, such as Norman Rockwell, his fellow illustrator and neighbor in the art colony of New Rochelle, New York. When the British writer Rudyard Kipling presented a copy of his first collection of short stories, Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), to Robley D. Evans, then captain of the USS Indiana, in 1896, the gift included a tipped-in original gouache painting by Zogbaum, whom Kipling cited in a brief poem on the leaf opposite the book’s title page. Kipling’s inscription and the four-quatrain poem begins: “Zogbaum draws with a pencil, / And I do things with a pen.”

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum was the son of Ferdinand Zogbaum and Mary Fairchild. The future artist’s father and his paternal uncle, Rufus Fairchild, were partners in a thriving musical instrument manufacturing and import business, first established in 1845 and then relocated to New York in 1853. Although he initially apprenticed in the family office, Rufus enrolled at the Art Students League, where he studied between 1878 and 1879. After pursuing further instruction at Germany’s University of Heidelberg in 1880, he moved on to Paris. During his two-year stay in the French capital, 1880–1882, he was a pupil of Léon Bonnat, a classical realist whose carefully constructed, emotive paintings of peasant life and religious passion reflected academic precepts of the day. The French master’s influence can be seen in Zogbaum’s oeuvre of highly-detailed, heroic paintings.

Upon his return to America, Zogbaum found regular work as an illustrator; between 1883 and 1899, he frequently contributed drawings to popular periodicals like the Saturday Evening Post, North American Review, and Harper’s Monthly, where he eventually earned a staff position. In 1884, he began a run of travels to the western territories, notably Montana. The fruits of these visits were seen in the drawings that accompanied magazine articles informed by the ideals of Manifest Destiny, as well as in finished oil paintings of cowboys on horseback and related scenes. Scholars of the Old West acknowledge Zogbaum with “setting the pattern in this genre for those who would follow," such as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.

Military life on the frontier was a frequent subject in Zogbaum’s art. As an artist-correspondent, he spent time with American cavalry regiments, whose presence there was glorified in salutary Harper’s Monthly articles like “With the Bluecoats on the Border” and “Honor to Whom Honor is Due.” Zogbaum also published two books, Horse, Foot, and Dragoons: Sketches of Army Life at Home and Abroad (1888) and All Hands:  Pictures of Life in the United States Navy, (1897). As evident by extant work in both private and public collections, Zogbaum’s output varied between western and naval subjects up to the time of the Spanish-American War. The outbreak of that war in 1898 proved to be a critical turning point for the artist’s career. He painted a series of works—many based on Admiral George Dewey’s exploits at Manila—that were subsequently engraved and marketed to an eager audience of buyers. In that age of American expansionism, there was a corollary and serious interest in the role naval power had played in shaping world history. Zogbaum’s prolific illustrations and original works of art rode that tide, as evidenced by monumental murals installed at the Vermont and Minnesota capitols.

Although Zogbaum painted several works based on events from the Civil War—including a depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg for the Cleveland, Ohio, federal courthouse—Vicksburg is one of his most unusual creations. It commemorates the siege of Vicksburg which lasted from May 18 through July 4, 1863, and is considered by many to mark the turning of the war towards Union victory.  Set against a heavily fortified Confederate garrison charged with the defense of the lower Mississippi River Valley, the extended battle included two major assaults and the loss thousands of troops from both sides. For more than forty days, the local citizens held out despite dwindling supplies and ruinous conditions. Yet, Zogbaum’s impressionistic interpretation is more moody than martial, in both tone and technique. Shadows of the gunboat darken the shoreline, while points of light shine out from lanterns on the docks and nearby houses. Fires can be seen burning along the river bank, illuminating defeat. More atmospheric than documental, this work captures the undercurrents of the dramatic conflict.

Rufus Zogbaum has long had his champions. In addition to the comparisons to Remington, military historians point to his work as having “set the standard for future military artists.” During his lifetime, Zogbaum enjoyed both critical and commercial success, and participated in important exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition, among others. Zogbaum’s descendants inherited his love for both art and the military. His son, Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum, Jr. (1878–1956), rose to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy. In turn, Admiral Zogbaum’s son, Wilfrid Meynell Zogbaum (1915–1965), was a highly-regarded modernist painter and sculptor whose papers are held by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.