National Portrait Gallery displays drawings of Adalbert Volck

By Chuck Myers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Published: Saturday, Sept. 8 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Dr. Adalbert Volck led a most interesting life.

A trained dentist, Volck plied his profession in Baltimore during the mid-19th century.

But the good dentist also had some intriguing sidelines.

As a Southern loyalist during the Civil War, he operated a safe house for rebel soldiers and agents, smuggled medical supplies to the South, and even served as a personal courier for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Above all, though, he loved to skewer President Abraham Lincoln in his artwork.

Volck's strong passion for the South and enmity toward all things Yankee come into sharp focus with a rare exhibition of his drawings at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

"The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck" features 20 etchings and lithographs selected by Portrait Gallery Historian James Barber, and drawn from the Portrait Gallery's collection.

Born in Bavaria, Germany, on April 14, 1828, Volck emigrated to the United States in 1848 after he sided with revolutionaries during a failed revolt. He eventually settled in Baltimore and enrolled in the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, where he earned his D.D.S. in 1852.

Volck sympathized with the Confederacy after Civil War erupted in 1861. A talented artist as well as proficient dentist, he brought his creative skills to bear for the Southern war effort.

Upset by how Northern illustrators derided the South in print, Volck launched a clandestine artistic counterattack, producing works for a limited number of subscribers under the alias "V. Blada."

Volck chronicled several aspects of the rebel cause in his drawings.

But it was Lincoln who drew his particular attention and ire.

Volck instilled his derisive interpretation of "The Emancipation Proclamation" (1864) with deft symbolism. In the lithograph, Lincoln sits amid satanic motifs, including a small devil, drafting the document that freed slaves in the rebellious Southern states. His left foot rests upon a volume of the Constitution. On the nearby wall hang pictures of abolitionist John Brown, and one of wanton violence born from a slave uprising on Santo Domingo in the 1790s.

An adjacent etching, "The Knights of the Rueful Countenance" (1861), renders Lincoln in the guise of Don Quixote, the errant knight of Miguel de Cervantes' celebrated novel. A seated Lincoln ponders his penned list of Union battlefield defeats, with one leg relaxed irreverently upon a stack of books entitled "Constitution," "Law" and "Habeas Corpus."

In "Passage Through Baltimore" (1863), Volck satirizes Lincoln's surreptitious rail journey to his first inauguration as it passed through the city in 1861. The president-elect peers out from inside a railroad boxcar, cowering between the car's doors as he looks for would-be assassins.

The war also found its way into Volck's art. Rather than dwell on large battles, he opted for more micro perspectives of the conflict.

"Scene in Stonewall Jackson's Camp" (1863) touches on Jackson's strong religious faith and leadership. The piece depicts a group of Confederate soldiers bowing their heads during a pious service, overseen by the general himself. Nearby, "Marylanders Crossing the Potomac to Join the Confederacy" (1864) portrays four men secretly rowing across the river in a style that echoes Emanuel Leutze's famous 1851 painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware."

Volck likewise created intimate views of wartime civilian life.

A Southern grandmother, mother and daughter appear in a domestic setting generating garments for Confederate use in "Making Cloths for the Boys in the Army" (1864). Beside it, "Searching for Arms" (1863) shows a pro-secessionist home in Baltimore being turned out by Union troops in search of weapons or any other household items that could aid the South.

"Cave Life in Vicksburg" (1864) presents a subdued scene of a woman praying inside a ramshackle earthen abode outfitted with furniture and family objects. The lithograph references the Union siege of Vicksburg, Miss., in 1863, during which time many of the town's residents took cover in caves dug into hillsides.

After the war, Volck resumed his dental practice. In addition, he expanded his artistic interests with painting and sculpture, and became a prominent figure in Baltimore's cultural circles. He died in 1912.

"The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck" remains on display through Jan. 21.

If you go . . .

What: The National Portrait Gallery is located at 8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Closed Christmas Day.

Admission: Free

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