Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals online exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute presents the photographic works of probably the most well known of American Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady. This exhibit begins by explaining that while Brady was mostly known for his Civil War photographs, he also had a New York studio where he had portraits done in photography of a variety of clients, including many of the Union Civil War generals. The exhibit explains that the portrait prints included in the exhibit were created from negatives in the museum’s Frederick Hill Meserve Collection[1] including William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Ambrose Burnside, George B. McClellan and others.

General George B. McClellan by Matthew BradyUlysses S. Grant

 

 

 

 

 

 

The exhibit is in slideshow format and opens with an introduction that explains how Brady and his team of photographers not only captured amazing images of the war but of many prominent Union generals. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Brady was already quite well known as a portrait photographer. What is interesting to know is that while large-format portraits were made, the majority were calling-card size photographs known as cartes de visite.[2] These prints were popular with not just the generals themselves, but with the public who eagerly purchased these photographic images of the men they believed would lead the Union to victory and put them into parlor albums. The exhibit then continues on with the images of twenty-one Union generals and a brief biography of each including their contributions to the war, quotes, and also included their full name, birth and death year and birthplace.

The main points that the exhibit appears to attempt to present is the importance of these men to the Union war cause and in showing Brady’s work as ahead of it’s time in the mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the only sources given are that of Brady’s studio and that the photos came from wet-collodion negatives. The accompanying text is not cited and is fairly general in nature, providing the very basic of overviews of each general.

The exhibit is unfortunately not extremely effective at providing anything but the basic information about each general. There is no real information about the photos themselves or more detail on the process Brady used to create these photographs. The photographs are fascinating, but the lack of any detail in the photos themselves does not present any historical information to the public short of the already mentioned basic profile of the generals.

The exhibit could have been highly effective. With a more detailed slideshow not only exhibiting the photographs, Brady’s work could have been discussed more in detail; the importance of the photographs to the general public during the war would also have been relevant; comparison and contrast of other photos of Brad’s work could have presented an interesting history of photography in the Civil War.

Sources:

[1] Smithsonian Institute. “Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals,” accessed October 5, 2014, http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/Mathew-Brady’s-Photographs-of-Union-Generals–4701.

[2] Smithsonian Institute. “Mathew Brady’s Photographs of Union Generals,” accessed October 5, 2014, http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/uniongenerals/index.html.