Comrades In Arts

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The usual image of U. S. Grant has him in his dingy infantryman’s coat, imperturbably chewing a cigar while under fire from the line on which he is willing to fight it out all summer; it is difficult to imagine him carefully putting the final touches to a watercolor. Yet Grant—and all his fellow West Pointers—had to learn how to do just that.

In 1803 the United States Military Academy was authorized by Congress to hire “one teacher of drawing, to be attached to the Corps of Engineers,” whose pay should “not exceed” that of an Army captain. The first few drawing instructors were apparently restless types, for the turnover was fairly rapid until the artist Robert Weir was appointed to the post in 1846. Although he fretted over his salary—he eventually had a stunning total of sixteen children to raise—and was vexed by what he saw as slights from the professional soldiers on the staff, he was well liked and stayed with the academy as art instructor for thirty years.

Among his more promising students were Seth Eastman and James McNeill Whistler, who once prevented Weir from making a correction on one of his drawings, shouting, “Oh don’t, sir, don’t! You’ll spoil it!” Robert E. Lee was doubtless less of a prima donna; his rather crabbed drawing of a dress helmet—made when he was commandant of the Point—suggests he took little joy in the discipline. His future opponent U. S. Grant, however, seems to have been more at ease. Grant copied the Western scene opposite from a print after a painting by Coke Smyth, just as Jefferson Davis took his drawing from a print of the goddess Minerva. Students learned by copying other works—a method of teaching in vogue since the Rennaissance. None of Weir’s students was more devoted to painting than William Tecumseh Sherman, who did the polished drawing of the Greek slaying the centaur. “I have a great love for painting, ” he wrote as a young man, “and find that I am so fascinated that it amounts to pain to lay down the brush, placing me in doubt whether I had better stop it now before it swallows all attention.”

 

Fortunately for American art, Whistler flunked out of the academy; fortunately for America, Sherman did not.

 
 
 

Our thanks to Michael E. Moss, curator of art at the West Point Museum, for bringing this material to our attention.