By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist
William Washington. More than likely, his is not a familiar name to you, but by the time of the Civil War he was a successful artist. An example of a “local boy made good,” Washington was born in Snickersville in Loudoun County, Virginia, on October 7, 1833.
Washington began his artistic life as a draughtsman in the U.S. Patent office in Washington, D.C. He became a student of painter and fellow Washingtonian Emmanuel Leutze, and eventually moved to Dusseldorf where he continued his studies. Washington then traveled to Calais, to study with Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow. Beginning his career as a painter of history while in Germany, the increasingly traveled Washington eventually returned to D.C. and found some success as a painter there.
When the Civil War began, Washington traveled to Richmond and offered his services to Robert E. Lee. Rejected for military service because of a deformity in one of his feet, Washington was appointed to the Virginia State Engineer’s Office, where he drew fortifications. While serving briefly under the command of John B. Floyd, Washington did sketches of mountain and battle scenes, some of which he would eventually put on canvas.
There are three of William Washington’s works on display in the West Parlor of the White House of the Confederacy, and they frequently draw visitors’ attention. Two of them, both from 1862 and untitled, depict soldiers at work amid grand landscapes. The third, entitled Sharpshooters, depicts a soldier engaging a target during a Civil War battle. They are beautiful paintings with rich, wonderful colors. The soldiers are almost lost in the majestic landscapes.
After the war, Washington fled to England where he lived until 1866, when he returned to the U.S., settled in New York City, and established a studio. In 1869 he was offered a teaching post at Virginia Military Institute. Washington remained there until his death on December 1, 1870. Today, most of Washington’s works are held at VMI. Perhaps his most famous work, The Burial of Latane, is in The Johnson Collection.
Very few people, including this writer, are familiar with great American artists. I had never heard of William Washington until I began leading tours in the White House of the Confederacy. Having learned about his life, education and travels, I have a greater appreciation for him and his work. Come visit and look at his efforts; I think you will, too.