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

Perhaps the most impressive item of public art in the capital, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is the monumental “Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett’s Charge,” by Peter Frederick Rothermel. Its sheer size, over sixteen feet high by more than thirty-two feet wide, and its theatrical composition, make it an over-powering experience.

The “Battle of Gettysburg,” is located on the second floor of the William Penn Memorial Museum. The painting was installed in its present site in 1964. A special niche was constructed to accommodate the oversized canvas, ex­tending some two feet above the fifteen-foot ceiling.

The legislature of Pennsylvania commissioned the painting in 1866, and Rothermel spent the next three years in research on the site and interviewing participants. The large painting took another year-and-a-half to complete. It depicts the apogee of the fighting on the third day of July, 1863, when shortly before four in the afternoon, the Confederate drive spent itself at the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge.

The painting was a success from the beginning, and a great attraction at the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876.

Peter Frederick Rothermel was born in the village of Nescopeck, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, July 8, 1812. His parents, John and Catharine, are presumed to have been descended from early settlers from Germany. They were innkeepers in Nescopeck. Peter attended common school and studied surveying. About the age of twenty-two, Peter went to Philadelphia to become a sign painter. He took drawing from John Reuben Smith. Peter quit shortly and enrolled in classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Later, he studied portraiture with Bass Otis. In 1840 he began his professional career as a portrait painter.

Rothermel’s first success came, not from portraiture, but with large historical compositions. The artist diverted his attention from portraiture.

In 1844, Rothermel married Caroline Goodhart of Phila­delphia. They had three children: Blanche, Peter, Jr., and John.

The Rothermel family traveled to Europe in 1856. They returned in 1859, having spent the last two years in Rome. Rothermel continued as a historical painter through the war years in Philadelphia.

In 1866, the legislative committee chose Rothermel as the logical selection to paint a commemorative series of the Battle of Gettysburg. He was to be paid $25,000 for the large painting and four smaller scenes of battle.

The large painting was completed first in 1870. There was, at that time, no suitable building in Harrisburg, and the artist was granted permission to exhibit the painting for a fee, which Rothermel did, taking the painting from Phila­delphia to Boston, to Chicago, where it was saved from the great fire of 1871, and Pittsburgh, before returning to Philadelphia.

The four smaller paintings were finished and delivered in February 1872. All five paintings were then installed in the temporary art gallery opened in 1873 in Fairmount Park. Here they remained until the large painting was removed to Memorial Hall for the Centennial Exposition of 1876.

Memorial Hall did remain as a picture gallery long after the close of the Fair, and the large “Battle of Gettysburg” continued on display to the public. Meanwhile, the Rother­mel family had moved from Philadelphia to the country home, “Grassmere,” at Linfield, Montgomery County, where the artist resided until his death.

In 1894, the new State Department and Library Building was dedicated in Harrisburg. With the smaller paintings on the left, the large “Pickett’s Charge” occupied the center wall seen as the visitor entered and mounted the main stairs. It was surely the kind of setting the original committee and Gov. Andrew Curtin, must have envisioned. Rothermel’s masterpiece had finally come to Harrisburg as originally intended.

Rothermel had conceived the five-painting series as high­lights of the Battle of Gettysburg from a Union and Penn­sylvania viewpoint. They proceeded in chronological sequence from the first day’s action which resulted in General Reynold’s death, the subject of painting number one. The second was “The Repulse of the Louisiana Tigres,” and the third, “The Charge of the Pennsylvania Reserves at Plum Run.” In this action, the Pennsylvania soldier made a heroic showing. The last small painting, is based on the activities of the morning of July 3, “Repulse of General Johnson’s Division by General Geary’s White Star Division.” The final painting is the large “Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett’s Charge.” They should be viewed in that sequence.

Peter Frederick Rothermel lived long enough to know his masterpiece was proudly displayed at the Capital, just thirty-six miles from the battle site, at the very target of General Lee’s next conquest. Rothermel was quite near­sighted, and after 1890 his eyesight deteriorated rapidly. The last three or four years of his life, he was virtually blind, and his daughter, Blanche R. MacDowell, states that the family did his reading and writing for him.

Peter Frederick Rothermel died at his home at 9:25 p.m., August 15, 1895.

Rothermel has conveyed a true pictorial record, ac­curately preserving the excitement, closeness and con­fusion of battle. Even more unique is the feeling of deter­mination and respect displayed by men on both sides. The series began as a pictorial tribute to the Pennsylvania and Union soldiers, but became a tribute to all, regardless of side, who participated in a momentous event.

 

Donald A. Winer is curator of the Pennsylvania Collection of Fine Arts William Penn Memorial Museum. Active as a potter and painter, he has published articles in Antiques Magazine and Pottery Collector’s Newsletter.