Historical Markers
Peter Frederick Rothermel Historical Marker
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Peter Frederick Rothermel

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
PA 93 between Montgomery and Cooper Sts., Nescopeck

Behind the Marker

An oil on canvas of an epic Civil War battle scene
The Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge, by Peter Frederick Rothermel, 1870.
For many years, the most awe-inspiring object at the State Museum of Pennsylvania has been Peter Frederick Rothermel's enormous - 16 by 32 foot - painting of "The Battle of Gettysburg." Commissioned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1867 for the price of $25,000, it took Rothermel three years to finish the canvas that many Americans still visualize when they think of the moment when Pickett's Charge reached the Union lines at "the Angle." To accompany the massive central canvass, Rothermel also completed four smaller battle paintings.

Before the arrival of epic motion pictures in the early 1900s, generations of Americans were thrilled by huge depictions of epic historical events. Paintings called cycloramas, which were even larger than Rothermel's, attracted visitors, who paid admission to view them. French artist Paul Philippoteaux, for example, painted two Gettysburg cycloramas, one of which is 359 feet long and 27 feet high, and continues to thrill visitors at the battlefield's National Park Service visitor center. It was millionaire industrialist and art patron Joseph Harrison, a great champion of Rothermel's work, who secured him the Gettysburg Commission.

Rothermel's canvasses toured the nation from 1870 to 1873, and during the nation's 1876 Centennial Exhibition were displayed prominently in the newly constructed Memorial Hall, along with other works by American artists. There it remained until 1894, when the Commonwealth finally had found a space large enough in Harrisburg in 1894 to display it. The painting now sits on the floor of the State Museum, since it is too tall to be hung from the wall.

As epic and patriotic as it appears today, Rothermel's "The Battle of Gettysburg" was quite controversial in the decades that followed its completion. Rothermel modeled the soldiers in the canvas on certain individuals; so others wanted to know why they were excluded or not displayed more prominently. When the painting was first shown in New York City - the nation's center for art criticism but also the leading center of Confederate sympathy in the North - critics considered it both a bloody monstrosity (although little blood is present) and a needless provocation against white southerners at a time when the nation needed sectional harmony.

While Rothermel went out of his way to get details of faces and uniforms right, he included critical leaders and events of the battle rather than capture a single moment. Hoping to provide a sense of the battle's import and drama rather than a literal reconstruction of the critical moment in Pickett's charge, he included General Meade (on the left) - who was not on the scene of the battle - and action at Little Round Top (on the right), which had taken place the previous day.

Christ figure, with arm raised into the air, is surrounded by turban headed doctors
Christ and the Doctors, by Peter Frederick Rothermel.
Born in Nescopeck in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to a family of farmers and innkeepers, Rothermel worked as a surveyor before moving in his twenties to Philadelphia where he studied with John Rubens Smith and Bass Otis. In the early 1840s, he found his true calling as a painter of monumental historical scenes. Success first came in 1843 with "De Soto Discovering the Mississippi" (St. Bonaventure College), after which Rothermel canvasses were in great demand. From 1847 to 1856 he served a director of the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he prohibited students from smoking or talking to models during sketching sessions.

His most famous work of this period, "Patrick Henry in the House of Burgesses of Virginia, Delivering His Celebrated Speech against the Stamp Act" was commissioned by the Art Union of Philadelphia and completed in 1851. Rothermel also painted a number of well-regarded religious works, including "Christ and the Doctors" (1861). Today this is on exhibit in the Public Museum of Reading, Pennsylvania, which also holds a fine collection of works by lesser-known Pennsylvania artists.

From 1856 to 1859, Rothermel traveled through Europe, where he met the great French painter Eugene Delacroix, whom he much admired, and executed his painting of "King Lear" (1858 - Schwarz Gallery, Philadelphia) in which he depicted America's first celebrity actor and a friend and patron, Philadelphian Edwin Forrest, as the mad king.

Uniformed soldiers carry off the dead and question the gathered crowd. Women attend a wounded soldier. A woman in the crowd points to a body lying in the doorway of the State House.
State House, Day of the Battle of Germantown, by Peter Frederick Rothermel,...
In the early years of the American Civil War, Rothermel painted two canvasses on the American Revolution - "American Revolution -First Reading of the Declaration of Independence" (1861 - Union League, Philadelphia) and "State House, Day of the Battle of Germantown" (1862 - Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) - both of which recalled the united effort the divided nation had made "four score and seven years ago." At the June, 1864 Great Central Fair in Philadelphia, which raised more than a million dollars to care for wounded soldiers, Rothermel was represented by twenty paintings, more than any other artists.

The American Civil War provided painters a new cycle of history-making events by which they could tell epic stories of patriotic sacrifice and valor. In the late nineteenth century, however, the grand manner of history painting of which Rothermel had been one of the great masters fell out of favor. When he died at his home in Linfield, Montgomery County in August, 1895, the Philadelphia Public Ledger termed him the "Last Artist of the Older School. . . not in touch with the latter-day impressionists, . . . . not in fashion with all those who are incapable of understanding anything that does not look like Claude Monet." (August 16, 1895). Another obituary, in the Inquirer (August 19, 1895) noting how Rothermel and markerThomas Hovenden, who painted in a similar style, died nearly simultaneously, blamed their eclipse on the fact that they lived near Philadelphia and were thus relatively unknown to the New York critics who dominated the art world. Like Hovenden, Rothermel would not receive a posthumous exhibition until 1995, on the centenary of his death.
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