Combat Artist

PrintPrintEmailEmail He admires his subjects without sentimentalizing them, and the modernity of his technique always foreshortens the distance between us and those long-dead soldiers and seamen, while not once making them look like moderns in fancy dress.</p> <div class="insertable"> <div class="img-block"><img data-cke-saved-src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_68.jpg" src="/sites/default/files/article/2006_6_68.jpg" alt="Fertig ashore: a splendidly accoutered French aide-de-camp goes about his martial business." visible="yes" height="323" width="280"> <div class="caption"> </div> <div class="image-attributes"><span class="credit">james graham & sons, new york city</span><span class="image_id">2006_6_68</span><span class="rights"> </span></div> </div> </div> <p>But their dress <span class="typestyle"> was</span> fancy, and Fertig depicts naval and military costume that ran to brilliant colors crowned by huge hats, flecked with bright brass buttons and crossed with pipe-clayed white straps, selecting just enough detail to evoke that fighting-cock plumage without ever suggesting the loving fussiness of a carefully painted lead soldier. His paintings somehow convey the fact that the men in all this finery were simply wearing working clothes. His subjects look beautiful but never strange. His ability to show us their elaborate clothing with such economy, with a mere handful of visual gestures, somehow makes us feel that we may know more about that long-ago age than we realize.</p> <p>For instance, Fertig can suggest with a scribble of lines at the waist of a cavalryman a sense of the detail that might make the viewer think of a sabretache or a cuirass or some other gorgeous, half-forgotten word, but he can also reduce complex structures to simple, powerful masses. The great marine painters exulted in the gilt and carving of a warship’s hull, but Fertig, painting the American sloop-of-war <span class="typestyle"> Wasp</span> and HMS <span class="typestyle"> Frolic</span> in a famous duel during the War of 1812, reduces the hulls of the two ships to brutal slabs, reminding us of the sheer mass of even a small warship. His technique can be intensely modern; one admirer described a work of his as “a Rothko with a boat in it.” You can see the texture of the paint, which is rarely the case with the tradition he is updating. With his often muted colors and a very few shapes Fertig can powerfully summon up men as well as battles. The bluish black of an officer’s coat atop the white of his trousers, the comparative immensity of a dark hat with a bit of flesh color for the face beneath it, the simple horizontal of an extended spyglass—and we are looking at a wholly persuasive Capt. Sidney Smith, almost certainly one of the chief inspirations for Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. Two white splashes and a pair of blue ones are men in shirtsleeves watched by brother officers as they fight a duel with sabers on a beach. The tiny, spare painting wonderfully captures the murderous vigor of a low, lunging thrust.</p> <p>Fertig paints a version of the era’s formal portraits too. The faces looking out from them are young, particularized, competent—and very close to us. When Fertig’s eye and hand imagine it, the past may be a different country, but they do nothing differently there.</p> <p><span class="typestyle"> Fredric Smoler</span> writes often for <span class="typestyle"> American Heritage</span> .</p> <p></p> <p></p></div></div>