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Saturday, February 4, 2012

New Redwood Entry: Cristy Humer on Leutze's Burnside

Ambrose Everett Burnside 
By Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868) 
Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches 
Gift of Henry G. Marquand 

This bust length portrait of the Civil War general Ambrose Everett Burnside is one of several paintings of Union military men executed by Emanuel Leutze toward the end of his career. It was gifted to the Redwood Library by Henry G. Marquand, an avid art collector and benefactor of many important museums and cultural institutions. 

Ambrose Burnside was an American soldier, inventor, railroad executive, and politician from Rhode Island. Born in Liberty, Indiana, he attended the United States Military Academy, graduating in 1847. He served in the military until 1853 when he resigned his commission to pursue the manufacture of the famous rifle that bears his name, the Burnside carbine. Unfortunately, he lost a lucrative contract to equip a large portion of the Army with his carbine and his factory was destroyed in a fire, causing financial ruin and forcing him to assign his firearm patents to others. 

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burnside was a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia. Despite his lackluster performance at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, he was soon given command of the Army of the Potomac. After a stalemate at Antietam and a humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln assigned him to command a much smaller corps. After another disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Crater in 1864, he was relieved of his command and finally resigned his commission in 1865. 

After his resignation, Burnside was employed as a successful railroad executive with the Cincinnati and Martinsville Railroad and the Rhode Island Locomotive Works. He was elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island from 1866 to 1869. In 1874, he was elected as U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, and served until his death in 1881. 

Burnside was considered a successful politician, but his military reputation was far less favorable. His tenure was marked by bitter animosity among his subordinates, and he lacked the personality and leadership necessary to direct his troops. Perhaps no one knew this better than he, as he twice refused command of the Army of the Potomac. Despite his many achievements, he is perhaps best known for his unique facial hair, and his name was the inspiration for the term “sideburns,” which was coined to describe this distinctive style. 

Emanuel Leutze was a German-born artist best known for his history paintings and murals commissioned by the U.S. government. His father was a political dissident and in 1825, the family left Germany and set sail for a new life in America. After settling in Philadelphia, the elder Leutze soon fell ill and died, but his political leanings would influence Emanuel throughout his life. 

After returning to Germany to study at the Dusseldorf Academy, Leutze soon got caught up in the revolution that was occurring throughout all of Europe in 1848, and particularly the fight for the unification of German states. He helped to establish the Malkasten, a new artists’ coalition that was meant to serve as a model of democratic ideas. The defeat of the 1848 revolution did not dampen Leutze’s democratic sensibilities, and his loyalty to the revolution’s goals naturally expressed themselves in his history painting. It was during this time that Leutze painted Washington Crossing the Delaware, the iconic work for which he is best known. 

By the late 1850s Leutze had grown disillusioned by the ongoing political repression in Germany. In 1959 he returned to the United States and settled in New York, where his fame still afforded him a steady stream of commissions. He worked steadily but increasingly erratically, and by the 1860s he was plagued by poor health, financial difficulties, and the sense of disillusionment that had begun in Germany. After losing a large public commission to a rival painter, Leutze conceived a program to paint portraits of commanders of the Union Army, of which General Burnside was one. At his death in 1868, only five of these portraits had been executed. 

The painting in the Redwood Library is actually a study for a full-length portrait of General Burnside at the Battle of Antietam, which Leutze painted from life in 1863. The painting depicts the general standing in uniform just before the capture of the Stone Bridge during the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. It was exhibited with some fanfare at the annual exhibition of the Boston Athenaeum in May. The large canvas was purchased for Brown University by a group of alumni, and in 1938 was given on permanent loan to the Rhode Island Statehouse where it hangs today.


Groseclose, Barbara S. Emanuel Leutze, 1816-1868: Freedom is the Only King. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975. 

Marvel, William. Burnside. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. 

Poore, Benjamin Perley. The Life and Public Services of Ambrose E. Burnside, Soldier, Citizen, Statesman. Providence: JA & RA Reid, 1882. 

Stehle, Raymond Louis. Emanuel Leutze, 1816-1868. Washington: Columbia Historical Society, 1971. 

Internet Sources 

Emanuel Leutze's Portrait of General Ambrose Burnside at Antietam, Brown University Library Special Collections,, accessed November 28, 2011.

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