William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), Captain William Madigan, c.1866, oil on canvas, 55 3/4 x 36 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jack Stoddard Johnson, 1973.
Today’s artwork is currently featured in the exhibition Shaping America at the BYU Museum of Art. In the 1860s, artist William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) brought to Boston an emphasis on the Barbizon School, a painting style characterized by an earthy palette, expressive brushwork, and poetic subjectivity. Hunt moved to Boston from Newport just as the Civil War broke out and he was a vigorous supporter of the Union cause. During and after the war, he painted portraits of veterans from his own social circles. Some portraits were posthumous, such as this one of Madigan, which Hunt painted from a photograph.
One of seventy-one Union soldiers killed during the battle, Madigan was remembered as “a wit and every inch a gentleman; a brave soldier who perished gallantly…a punster and vocalist; who could tell a pleasing story, or perpetuate a good joke…” Although Madigan was known for his playfulness, Hunt chose to depict him as a serious soldier, the kind of man who would sacrifice his life for a noble cause. His hands are folded neatly at the hilt of his sword and he is wearing the trademark Union Army blue coat. Although he did not win the Military Cross for heroism, he is painted as wearing one, signaling Hunt’s esteem. Gold buttons of the uniform march up his chest, leading the viewer’s eye back to Madigan’s face. Two gold embroidered bars at each shoulder reflect Madigan’s status as a captain. The embroidered decoration on his cap is a horn, the typical emblem used for Union officers, which encircles the number nine, reflecting his infantry unit. The slight bend of his knee indicates that he is a solider standing at rest, but his gaze remains watchful and alert.