At 86, artist Mort Kunstler has had a very long career, but one of the highlights was the 1995 exhibition of his Civil War paintings at the N.C. Museum of History. People waited in line for hours to have Kunstler sign books and prints, especially of a painting called “Winter Riders,” a scene of Confederate soldiers riding down Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street.
It took almost 20 years, but Kunstler returned to Raleigh last month for the opening of his second exhibition at the history museum. The exhibit, “For Us the Living: The Civil War Art of Mort Kunstler,” features more than 30 paintings. One of the images on display again uses Raleigh as its backdrop: “Capitol Farewell” shows a couple saying goodbye in front of the state capitol on a snowy night.
And again, on a recent Saturday, hundreds of people stood in line to have Kunstler sign the $225 prints and other merchandise.
Kunstler, who could be called the Thomas Kinkade of Civil War paintings, has sold tens of thousands of prints and had his artwork collected in 20 books. His work has even been featured in a one-hour special on the A&E network.
The popularity of Kunstler’s art doesn’t surprise Joseph Porter, the museum’s chief curator. Kunstler’s paintings not only bring to life an era of particular interest in the South, but his attention to detail is renown. Beyond getting the style and color of the soldiers’ uniforms correct, as well as all their equipment, Kunstler goes to great pains to find records about the weather on a particular day during the war, the buildings that would have existed at the time, even the slope of the landscape on a battlefield.
For “Winter Riders,” Porter explained, Kunstler researched all the businesses that existed on Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street at the time.
“That’s an example of how meticulous he is in his work,” Porter said.
The exhibition includes Kunstler’s portraits of Union admirals and Confederate generals, battle scenes from North Carolina’s Fort Fisher, South Carolina’s Fort Sumter and a series of paintings depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. There are also scenes of the soldiers’ lives off the battlefields, including one depicting the baptism of Lucy Lee Hill, daughter of Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill.
“There’s always humanity in wartime,” Porter noted.
He added: “We’re very proud to have this exhibition here with our longtime relationship with Mort Kunstler and his art.”
Kunstler grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but now lives on Long Island’s Oyster Bay. He may have been destined to be a painter; his last name in German means “artist.” His parents encouraged his talent at a young age. His father was a talented amateur artist, and his mother took him to art classes starting at age 7. Kunstler will have an exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts next year featuring his work from childhood to adulthood.
Kunstler studied art at Brooklyn College, UCLA and the Pratt Institute before becoming an illustrator for books and magazines in the 1950s. He says he developed a reputation for drawing complex action scenes and illustrated movie posters for such 1970s films as “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Hindenburg” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” Along the way, he also got assignments from National Geographic magazine for historical pieces and learned how to work with historians to assure accuracy.
In 1982, he was commissioned to do a painting by CBS for the TV miniseries “The Blue and The Gray.” The piece, “The High Water Mark,” which is part of the current exhibition, depicts a scene from the Battle of Gettysburg showing Confederate soldiers from two North Carolina regiments (the 22nd and the 26th) fighting Union solders from the 14th regiment of Connecticut volunteers. To his surprise, Kunstler said, the prints of that piece were a huge hit with the public.
At the time, Kunstler, like a lot of artists, had been painting scenes of the American West, a well-worn subject in American art. But Kunstler discovered that few if any Civil War events had been painted before. So here was this untapped subject matter that lent itself to his specific skill: painting dramatic action-filled scenes. And best of all, there was little out there to compare his work against.
“I didn’t have to worry about comparisons,” Kunstler said.
Kunstler has visited many of the historical sites and has stood in the very spot from which he will paint a scene. And he regularly consults with historians to make sure details are correct.
Despite his age, he is not slowing down. He is now working on his last eight Civil War paintings. The final piece will fittingly depict the signing of the peace treaty at Appomattox, and it will be unveiled – and prints will be available for purchase –in 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the ending of the Civil War.
But the end of his Civil War paintings does not mean the end of Kunstler’s historical works. He plans to start a new series of paintings titled “The New Nation,” about George Washington and the founding of our country.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl