St. Paul artist gets in the face of Minnesota's Civil War soldiers

  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 11:18 PM
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St. Paul artist Jay Wittenberg spent three years painting 76 portraits of the First Minnesota Regiment 150 years after they went off to fight in the Civil War.

Despite sharing his home with 76 guys, painter Jay Wittenberg has been lonely the last three years. That's because the men crowding into every room of his home on St. Paul's East Side were members of Minnesota's First Regiment who went off to fight in the Civil War 150 years ago. ¶ Wittenberg spent hours every day painting the scowling grimaces, burly muttonchops and piercing eyes of the young Minnesotans who volunteered to fight in the nation's bloodiest battles, including Gettysburg.

His 14-by-18-inch oil paintings are on display at the James J. Hill House on Summit Avenue in St. Paul until October. The likenesses have an eerie contemporary quality. The soldiers' eyes seem to follow viewers around the gallery.

"I think about these individuals leaving their homes and loved ones to fight in a horrible war with great chances of getting wounded or killed," he said. "These are not the ruddy cheeks of gung-ho guys who can't wait to get there. These are young men who have seen the horrors."

The son of an antiques dealer mom and banker dad, Wittenberg braided his interests in 19th-century America, the human face and large-scale portrait series. He considers himself lucky after scanning the military yearbooks from his father's years in the Army around 1960. Soldiers of that era were forbidden to have facial hair. So with hats pulled down low, they all tended to look alike. Individuality was frowned upon; soldiers were cogs of a unit.

The First Minnesota had no such rules. So Leroy Sampson has a Grizzly Adams-style full beard, Howard Stansbury has bushy sideburns (think Joe Mauer run amok), and 6-foot-5 Jacob George has a thick blond beard and mustache (that's him in the lower corner of the above photo).

The Minnesota Historical Society lent Wittenberg an actual Civil War blue hat, which he stuck on a foam head and photographed from various angles to help his portraiture. Enlisted men were required to wear hats, so only officers were painted sans caps.

Wittenberg compiled more than 500 sketches and he considers the 76 on display his best work. He researched biographical information on each soldier, leaning on the www.1stminnesota.net website for help. When he could, he used tiny, faded daguerreotypes. Old mustering books sometimes included hair and eye color. In other cases, he made educated guesses for facial details.

He received no project funding, so the painter "tightened his belt and had no social life," using his commercial vehicle license to pick up odd jobs to help pay the bills.

A graduate of Johnson High School and the College of Visual Arts, Wittenberg teaches adult classes in Woodbury and St. Paul and earns some money giving private lessons. He admits this obsession "became a little overwhelming at times," with each painting taking about six months. He worked on several at once as layers of oil dried.

Each face is framed with a rope-like border punctuated with narrative symbols. A cracked heart signals a wound. A heart with a cross symbolizes a soldier killed in battle. A snake swallowing its tail is a sign of eternity -- "very apt for this conflict that saw the country devouring itself."

His favorite face? Congressional Medal of Honor winner Marshall Sherman who captured a Rebel flag, lost a leg in battle, only to re-enlist and go back to war. "I think I really nailed his likeness."

Wittenberg was thrilled to meet the octogenarian grandson of one of his subjects, Capt. William Leach. As much as it would hurt to part with the paintings, he's open to selling.

"To me the human face is the be all and end all," he said.

CURT BROWN

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