With the exception of Gettysburg’s and Atlanta’s cycloramas, few other pieces of Civil War art bring the viewer into the immediacy of combat than the large paintings done by veteran James Hope of the Battle of Antietam. But unlike those two more famous works of art, whose artists depicted scenes through the eyes of participants, Hope himself was a participant in the Battle of Antietam and painted the scenes he remembered and the scenes he saw on September 17, 1862.
James Hope was not the standard Civil War soldier. He was older than average, 43 years old at Antietam as a member of the 2nd Vermont Infantry. Soldiering was not his profession, though. From a young age, Hope sketched onto anything he had available to him. He took an art course in Vermont as a young man and then became an art teacher. The budding artist made his money painting portraits, but he soon morphed himself into a landscape artist, an element that is reflected in his Antietam paintings.
Along with the 2nd Vermont, Hope served in the Peninsula Campaign, where the army put his artistic talent to use to sketch maps of the area. Like many other soldiers, his health worsened in the malarial air of the Peninsula. He recovered in time though to be present at Antietam. In the battle’s immediate aftermath, Hope made sketches of the field.
Sickness eventually forced him out of the army before the war ended. Hope replayed his war memories in his mind and put them to canvas. His first two paintings of note were of Antietam’s Bloody Lane followed by a portrayal of the Army of the Potomac’s encampment at Cumberland Landing, Virginia, in 1862.
Hope’s painting business thrived after the war. He moved to Watkins Glen, New York, from where he traveled to Antietam several times to complete a large undertaking–five large format paintings depicting different scenes from the Antietam battlefield. The paintings received positive feedback from battle veterans, but over time they faded from memory. Hope’s studio in Watkins Glen remained open after his death. Much of his work was destroyed in a flood in 1935. The Antietam paintings survived though they were significantly damaged (Hope’s large painting of the aftermath of battle at the Bloody Lane did not survive in its entirety).
The National Park Service purchased the paintings in 1979. They underwent extensive repair and cosmetic work. At Antietam National Battlefield’s newly renovated visitor center, one painting is on rotating display at a time. Each of Hope’s paintings show the sheer size and destruction of the Battle of Antietam while also sticking close to Hope’s roots–showing the beautiful landscape that visitors experience today when they visit Antietam, a stark contrast to what the place was like 161 years ago.