Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For three centuries, Pennsylvania has en­joyed a rich and di­verse cultural heritage. The elegance of its colonial and federal architecture and furniture in Philadelphia is unrivaled, prompting architect Benjamin Latrobe in 1811 to christen the city “the Athens of the Western World.” During the opening years of the nine­teenth century, Philadelphia attracted artists and artisans from throughout the new nation, as well as from Europe and the West Indies. Eminent painters closely associated with Philadelphia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed heavily to the city’s important role in the development of a distinc­tive American style, including Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Sully, Emanuel Leutze, and Thomas Eakins. Although not as well known, Pennsylvania painter Peter Frederick Rothermel (1812/1817-1895) deserves as much attention and acclaim.

Born in the village of Nes­copeck, Luzerne County, Peter Frederick Rothermel first ap­prenticed as a surveyor, and later studied – albeit briefly­ – with John Rubens Smith, an English-born engraver and portrait painter active in Phila­delphia in the 1830s. Among Smith’s earlier students was Emanuel Leutze, creator of the popular Washington Crossing the Delaware. Rothermel also studied briefly with Bass Otis, a portraitist and early lithographer.

By 1840 Rothermel had established himself as a por­trait painter in Philadelphia. His surviving likenesses of prominent Philadelphians reveal his command of the elegant portrait formulas pop­ular with artists such as Thomas Sully. It was not long before his work was recog­nized by patrons, peers, and the public. In 1844 he was elected vice president of the Artist’s Fund Society of Phila­delphia. Director of the Penn­sylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1847 to 1855, he served on many committees through the years. He was made an honorary member of the National Academy of De­sign in New York and later elected to the American Philo­sophical Society “in recognition of his distinction as an artist.” In addition to exhibit­ing regularly at the Pennsylva­nia Academy, he was represented by important paintings in the collections of the Washington Art Associa­tion, Boston Athenaeum, National Academy of Design, and American Art-Union.

Although an accomplished portrait painter and illustrator, Rothermel was best known for historical scenes and for sub­jects inspired by literature and the Bible. His relative obscu­rity today has little relation­ship with his considerable talent; rather, the type of his­tory paintings for which he became famous simply became unfashionable by the turn of the century.

The concept of history painting – which Rothermel favored – originated in Renais­sance theory, especially Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise, On Painting (1435), in which the author discussed the impor­tance of narrative subjects drawn from ancient literature as the proper content of humanistic art. During the Middle Ages, painting was primarily religious in nature, with the church as the princi­pal patron. During the Renais­sance, however, wealthy patrons, particularly the Med­ici and the Borghese families, created a demand for pictorial narratives inspired by ancient sources, and by the High Ren­aissance artists who ap­proached religious subjects and mythology with fierce intensity of purpose and zeal. During the sixteenth century a hierarchy of painting subjects developed, in which scenes of everyday life, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes were considered inferior to religious art and historical subjects. Once established, this hierar­chy dominated art and artists throughout the nineteenth century. By Rothermel’s era, history painting had expanded to include not only historical events and Biblical and reli­gious subjects, but also my­thology, allegory, classical literature, and literary subjects of modern languages.

The problem of expressing emotions visually on canvas is central to history painting, which is an essentially didactic art meant to inspire noble feelings in the viewer through the portrayal of heroic deeds. Much like Alberti before him, the great High Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci believed that the highest aim of art was to depict – through expression and movement of the limbs – the inner state of the subject’s mind and soul. Following the creation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in France in 1684, adherents developed strict rules governing the ap­plication of human expression and gesture in art to properly reveal emotions and aspira­tions. A formula for the depic­tion of passions, such as hope and fear, was actually pub­lished for artists to follow.

In Europe the practice of history painting was an unin­terrupted tradition, extending from the Renaissance until the late nineteenth century with impressionism, and to the early twentieth century, when such modern movements as fauvism, cubism, and expres­sionism altered the character of painting. Seeking to associate themselves with European tradition, American artists studied European aesthetic theory and copied the works of the Old Masters. American and European history painting followed similar courses. Actu­ally, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, two American-born artists who moved to London, played significant roles in shaping the direction of late eighteenth and nineteenth century history painting on both continents.

The Romantic interest in specific periods was manifest in nearly all aspects of culture, particularly revival architec­ture, literature, and historical writing. History painters, including Rothermel, would increasingly draw upon liter­ary sources for their subjects. The year 1843 saw the publica­tion of two important histories related to Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes (1485-1547): George Folsom’s translation of The Despatches of Hernando Cortes and William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mex­ico, which evidently inspired Rothermel. One of the most important and successful paintings in establishing the artist’s reputation was Cortez’s First View of Mexico City, dated 1844, which the New York Mir­ror hailed as one of his best when exhibited at the National Academy of Design three years later. Rothermel massed fig­ures on both sides of the can­vas so that the central distance reveals a broad misty view of Mexico, which Prescott called “the promised land.” He also extended the analogy by por­traying a seated Indian woman dressed in white and wearing the sacred cross of her new Christian faith. By the mid­-nineteenth century, America’s fabled West was frequently envisioned as a promised land or new Eden, characterized by George Caleb Bingham’s Emi­gration of Daniel Boone and Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way in the United States Capitol. The central motif in both pictures is a woman seated upon a beast of burden, a symbol associated with the Virgin Mary in reli­gious art and with her Flight into Egypt. Historians conjec­ture that this somewhat vague concept of the promised land can be loosely related to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, American artists were stimu­lated by the possibility of receiving a commission from Congress for a painting to adorn the United States Capi­tol. In 1817, John Trumbull had been commissioned to paint four of the eight large rotunda panels with subjects represent­ing the Revolutionary War period. Tt was not until 1836, however, that Congress finally passed a resolution to fill the remaining panels with histori­cal subjects “serving to illus­trate the discovery of America, the settlement of the United States, the history of the revo­lution, or the adoption of the constitution.” John G. Chap­man was appointed to paint the Baptism of Pocahontas, Rob­ert W. Weir the Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, and John Vanderlyn the Landing of Columbus. The remaining panel had been awarded to Henry Inman, who died in 1846 without completing the commission. Inman’s commis­sion for the Discovery of the Mississippi went to William H. Powell.

As the United States blos­somed, federal and state governments, and public insti­tutions, including hospitals and libraries, increased in size and number to meet the ex­panding needs of its citizens. Public architecture flowered in the nation’s cities, and with it so grew the demand for art suitable to decorate these new spaces. Unwittingly, Congress became an important patron of public art. Although Philadel­phia architect Thomas U. Wal­ter was not commissioned to construct the cast iron dome capping the rotunda until 1855, the cornerstone for the expansion of the U.S. Capitol had been laid in 1851. Until the practice was terminated in 1878, artists were permitted to exhibit important paintings in the building. They exhibited in hopes of either selling their paintings to Congress or win­ning a commission for the Capitol.

In 1852 Rothermel exhibited Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses. Tradition holds that Rothermel’s picture was placed in the Capitol rotunda, but extant records are vague and it cannot be docu­mented. That year Leutze exhibited Washington Crossing the Delaware in Washington, D.C., and George P.A. Healy exhibited Webster Replying to Hayne in the Senate. Sen. James Cooper of Pennsylvania spon­sored a resolution in April directing the Committee of the Library to investigate the expe­diency of employing Leutze and Healy. In June, the Senate amended the resolution to examine the possibility of engaging Rothermel to paint two subjects “to be drawn from American revolutionary history.” The Senate amend­ment resulted, in part, from a petition circulated by the officers of the Philadelphia Art Union requesting that Rother­mel be employed to fill “one of the panels of the rotunda of the Capitol.” Nothing came of these resolutions, although in 1861 Emanuel Leutze received a commission for Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way in the Capitol extension. Even though Rothermel exhibited Christian Martyrs in the Capitol during the 1860s, he did not succeed in obtaining a govern­ment commission.

As work on the U.S. Capi­tol progressed, painters con­tinued to be evaluated – and reevaluated – for possible com­missions. In February 1854, the influential Gouverneur Kem­ble of Cold Spring, New York, who had served in the House from 1837 to 1841, wrote to Montgomery Meigs, Architect of the Capitol, “I saw the other day in Philadelphia a picture by Rothermel, representing Patrick Henry delivering his celebrated speech before the Burgesses of Virginia, which for truth and expression, and good color, is equal to any thing that the other [Leutze] has done, and the drawing is better than most of Leutze’s pictures …. ” Obviously unim­pressed, Meigs replied, “Rothermel’s Patrick Henry seemed to me a sketch, as though he had not the indus­try or skill to paint a finished picture.” By the 1850s the smoothly finished pictures of artists working in Dusseldorf, Germany – among them Emanuel Leutze – had become popular in America, and Meigs was not the only indi­vidual critical of Rothermel’s more painterly style. Henry T. Tuckerman in his widely read Book of the Artists, published in 1867, acknowledged Rother­mel’s talent, but also opined that the artist had produced “a large number of works with a rapidity incompatible with grand permanent results.” Rothermel’s Patrick Henry Be­fore the Virginia House of Bur­gesses had been originally commissioned as first prize for members of the Art Union of Philadelphia in 1852, and each subscriber received an engrav­ing after the picture by Alfred Jones. Both the painting and the engraving received critical acclaim, and were important in further establishing Rothermel’s reputation.

Orator Patrick Henry (1736- 1799) had delivered one of his most famous speeches before the Virginia House of Bur­gesses on May 29, 1765. Op­posing the Stamp Act, he had introduced several resolutions asserting the rights of the colonies to make their own laws. His famous speech, popularized by William Wirt’s book, Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry, is the subject of Rothermel’s paint­ing. Rothermel depicted Pat­rick Henry at the conclusion of his fiery oratory as he de­clared, “Caesar had his Brutus – Charles the first, his Cromwell – and George the third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.” In Rothermel’s painting, aU are moved by Henry’s impassioned words. The artist’s composition is dramatic yet sophisticated, and leaves little (if any) doubt that he had closely studied the works of High Renaissance and Baroque painters Titian and Rubens.

In 1856 Rothermel toured Europe and settled in Rome, where he lived until 1859. During a sojourn in Dussel­dorf, he would have most just left of the stone fence between two Union flags, while Armistead, supported by a comrade, falls mortally wounded to the right of the fence. The catalogue which likely visited his Philadelphia colleague Emanuel Leutze. Little is known about Rother­mel’s travels in Europe, but The Crayon published some rather intriguing remarks. In June 1858, a report from Rome duly noted: “Rothermel, of Philadelphia, is passing his second arrival in Europe …. He has been greatly admired and patronized by the Russian nobility, who are making Rome their winter quarters …. Another dispatch indicated that his painting St. Agnes was purchased by a Russian. The news from Rome in December included a mysterious item: “A large detachment of artistic militia went off with Rother­mel last June, and have not been heard of since.” In Sep­tember 1859, The Crayon commented that, “American Art seems to be making its way in Europe. Rothermel, who ex­hibited a work in the Paris exhibition, has an ‘honorable mention’ awarded to him by the jury of judges.” By Novem­ber, however, he had returned to the United States where, The Crayon noted, “we find that Rothermel has resumed his labors here, having taken a studio in the Washington Building …. ”

Most of Peter Frederick Rothermel’s early historical subjects were drawn from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or from the Revolu­tionary War period typified by Landing of the Pilgrims and State House on the Day of the Battle of Germantown. In major cities along the eastern seaboard he successfully exhibited a wide variety of narrative subjects, including subjects inspired by the Bible, William Shakes­peare, and the works of nineteenth century authors Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving. His work was well received, especially in Phila­delphia, and he was acknowl­edged as an exceptionally talented colorist. “Rothermel, since his return,” reported the December 1859 edition of The Crayon, “has astonished us with his later works, on ac­count of their display of mas­tery of color.”

Last Sigh of the Moor, one of Rothermel’s most successful paintings following his return from Europe, was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1864. Inspired by Washington Irving’s A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, the painting illus­trated the Moors’ retreat from Granada after the Alhambra had fallen to the Spanish crowns of Castile and Aragon in 1492. European artists, including Spanish painter Eduardo Cano de la Pena, were attracted by the romantic theme of the fall of the Alham­bra, too. His large Entrance of the Catholic Royalty into the Alhambra, now in Seville, rep­resents freed Christians falling down in gratitude before Queen Isabella as she emerges from her canopied tent. Rothermel’s Last Sigh of the Moor, too, has as its underly­ing theme the notion of libera­tion, and probably refers to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipa­tion Proclamation and the freeing of the slaves. A num­ber of American artists dealt with abolitionism, either through realism or by fanciful allegory. The Civil War would have certainly preoccupied Rothermel in 1864; he helped organize the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission.

Two years later, the oppor­tunity of painting a large pub­lic work of art finally came to Rothermel, not from Congress as he had earlier hoped but from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In January 1866, Gov. Andrew G. Curtin sug­gested in his annual message to the state legislature that a painting should be commis­sioned to commemorate the engagement at Gettysburg in 1863. On July 13, 1866, Rother­mel and a joint committee of the legislature entered into an agreement that has become one of the most important examples of state patronage of history painting in the nine­teenth century. And it was a harbinger of the fabulous fine and decorative art that would later be commissioned for the present State Capitol.

According to the terms of the commission, Rothermel was to complete a model, measuring at least five feet by six feet, within one year, but it remains unclear whether or not it was ever painted. At first the General Assembly of Penn­sylvania seems to have had in mind only one picture, but the committee drafted its own requirements. “The panel border is to contain the great conflicts of the Battle of Get­tysburg, and such interesting episodes as shall be deter­mined by the Committee …. ” This commission was finally increased to five paintings to include depictions of signifi­cant tactics and events, includ­ing Death of General Reynolds, The Repulse of the Louisiana Tigers, The Charge of the Penn­sylvania Reserves at Plum Run, Repulse of General Johnson’s Division by General Geary’s White Star Division, and Pick­ett’s Charge. Except for the monumental Pickett’s Charge, the first four works (chrono­logically recording the action at the Battle of Gettysburg) were completed by 1871-1872. All five paintings are now in the holdings of The State Museum of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg.

Pickett’s Charge, the original commission and largest can­vas, was unveiled to the public in Philadelphia at the Acad­emy of Music in December 1870. “In the Academy of Mu­sic last evening, under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.” an observer wrote, “Rothermel’s Great Picture of the Battle of Gettysburg was unveiled. A master work of art, the large canvas was stretched behind the curtain on the stage, bril­liantly lighted up by multi­tudes of gas jets in the flies and wings, stretched in such a way and position as to be distinctly seen from every portion of the house … ” Since no building in Harrisburg was large enough to accommodate the colossal painting, Rother­mel had been given permis­sion to exhibit it to the public for profit. Before it was finally installed along with the four smaller paintings in the Li­brary and Executive Building in 1894, Pickett’s Charge had traveled to Philadelphia, Bos­ton, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and again to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. John Sartain made an engrav­ing based on Rothermel’s Pickett’s Charge, and a key was published to identify the figures.

The subject of Pickett’s Charge is the final day of fight­ing when the Union forces, led by Gen. Alexander S. Webb, repulsed the Confederate troops under the command of Gen. Lewis A. Armistead. Rothermel portrayed General Webb with an upraised sword, accompanied the painting during its traveling exhibition noted that, “the troops on Webb’s left rapidly charged front to the right, and, closing en masse, rushed upon the headstrong foe. Then com­menced one of the most des­perate hand to hand encounters of the battle. The bayonet and clubbed musket were freely used …” At the far left, beyond the cannon, Gen. George G. Meade, com­mander of the Union armies, and his son, Colonel Meade, received word from Lieut. Frank Aretas Haskell that the tide of the battle had turned. (Rothermel studied Haskell’s account in preparing his pic­ture.) Beyond the group around Meade, Lieut. Gulien V. Weir’s artillery hurries into position: “I was conducted to General Webb’s position, and came into battery under a heavy musketry fire. I opened at once with canister. In a few minutes our infantry charged, and the enemy were driven back.” The cannon nearer to the stone wall belonged to the brave and gallant Alonzo H. Cushing’s battery. Rothermel massed soldiers in pyramidal arrangements in front of the heaviest combat, which un­folds in a broad, confused, and smoky panorama. The stone fence leads directly to the pivotal figure of Private Sills, who raises his musket to strike down an enemy, but appar­ently too late to avoid a bayo­net wound himself.

Three years elapsed from the day Peter Frederick Rother­mel received the commission until he actually began work on Pickett’s Charge. The pur­pose of his long investigation was to ensure historical accu­racy. He collected accounts of the battle, made portrait like­nesses, and visited the site to sketch the landscape. In his research, however, it was not Rothermel’s intention to recon­struct the battle in any sort of realistic manner. In approach­ing Pickett’s Charge, he sought to create a work of art within the aesthetic principles that had been established and refined by artists throughout centuries. He employed the artistic devices available to him in representing heroic action, emphasizing gestures and facial expressions. Rothermel intended to remind his peers and the following generations of the noble deeds of men who fought – and, perhaps, died­ – at Gettysburg for what they cherished as their cause.

During preparations for the Centennial Exhibition in Phila­delphia, Rothermel was head of the Advisory Committee of the Department of Art. He exhibited eight works of art in 1876, including Amy Robsart Interceding for Leicester, the study for which was recently discovered and purchased by The State Museum of Pennsyl­vania. In 1877 Rothermel moved to his home near Lin­field, where his health began to fail and, by the mid-1880s, he had almost ceased to paint. He died in 1895.

The fickle nature of taste is often responsible for the fate of an artist’s reputation, as well as the fortune of an entire artistic movement. The popu­larity of history painting sharply declined in the twenti­eth century, and the legacies of Peter Frederick Rothermel” and fellow practitioners were neg­lected and inevitably forgot­ten. Nevertheless, despite having fallen out of public appreciation for many years, the reputation of Peter Fred­erick Rothermel is once again being reevaluated and restored to the favor and respect this native son deserves.


For Further Reading

Ahrens, Kent. “As an Artist Saw Gettysburg.” Civil War Times Illustrated. (December 1967).

____. “Nineteenth Cen­tury History Painting and the United States Capitol.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C.. Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1980.

Coddington, Edwin B. “Rother­mel’s Paintings of the Battle of Gettysburg.” Pennsylvania History. 27 (January 1960).

Mendelowitz, Daniel M. History of American Art. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1970.

Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Painters. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Associa­tion, 1983.

Thistlethwaite, Mark. “Peter F. Rothermel: A Forgotten Histon; Painter.” The Magazine Antiques. 124 (November 1983).

Winger, Donald A. “Rothermel’s Battle of Gettysburg: A Victorian’s Heroic View of the Civil War.” Nineteenth Century (Winter 1975).


Kent Ahrens is director of the Rockwell Museum, Coming, New York, which specializes in North American Western art, and Fred­erick Carder and Steuben glass. He attended Mercersburg Acad­emy, received his bachelor of arts degree from Dartmouth College, and was awarded his master of arts degree from the University of Maryland. He received his doctor­ate from the University of Dela­ware. During his doctoral studies he served two years at the Na­tional Gallery of Art, Washing­ton, D. C., as Samuel H. Kress Fellow and as Chester Dale Fel­low. The author taught art his­tory at Florida State University, Randolph-Macon Woman’s Col­lege, and Georgetown University. He was a member of the curatorial staff of the Wadsworth Athe­naeum, Hartford, Connecticut, and served as director of the Everhart Museum of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for eight years. He has authored numerous articles and exhibition catalogues; his pieces on American art his­tory have appeared in The Magazine Antiques, American Art Jour­nal, and Woman’s Art Journal. He is currently organizing an exhibition devoted to the sculpture of Cyrus E. Dallin, whose public monuments are located in several Pennsylvania communities, in­cluding Hanover, Gettysburg, and Philadelphia.