Libby Prison, in Richmond, Virginia, was one of the most notorious Confederate prisons in operation during the Civil War. The building was originally a tobacco warehouse, constructed by local merchant Fulton Libby in 1845; by 1862, it was a filthy, vermin-infested, dank prison, housing as many as...
Libby Prison, in Richmond, Virginia, was one of the most notorious Confederate prisons in operation during the Civil War. The building was originally a tobacco warehouse, constructed by local merchant Fulton Libby in 1845; by 1862, it was a filthy, vermin-infested, dank prison, housing as many as twelve hundred Union soldiers in six rooms each no more than forty by one hundred feet. Many prisoners died there; those who survived suffered from poor health for the rest of their lives. David Gilmour Blythe, a self-trained artist with a satirist's eye and a keen dramatic sense, never saw Libby Prison. He spent the war years in Pittsburgh and relied on newspaper accounts and prints of the prison for information about the setting and the prisoners' wretched lives. Some of his details are true to life-men play cards and checkers to pass the time, others wash themselves at a water trough; a soldier at center comforts a feverish friend. Other elements are broadly satirical-a man at center writes "Time" on a post, while another reads Rip Van Winkle (as though relief could be found in a story of twenty years' slumber); the chaplain at center right offers sham solace to the despondent men. Although many of his figures are crudely drawn, Blythe's use of lighting is deftly theatrical, and his rich red-and-brown color scheme intensifies the emotion of the scene. Beneath the propagandistic accumulation of horrifying detail are echoes of several famous European paintings dealing with related themes, which Blythe likely would have known through prints. The similarities with William Hogarth's Bedlam (the final scene in his epic series of paintings "The Rake's Progress," which were widely distributed in prints) and Baron Gros' General Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa (Musée du Louvre; a version is in the MFA) suggest that the inhumanity of Libby Prison was not limited to the Civil War or America, but was part of the larger, age-old story of man's inhumanity to man. This text was adapted from Davis, et al., MFA Highlights: American Painting (Boston, 2003) available at www.mfashop.com/mfa-publications.html.
Lower right: Blythe
The artist; with J. J. Gillespie Co., Pittsburgh; M.B. Leisser, Pittsburgh, before 1879; with private dealer, Pittsburgh, about 1926; to Alfred E. Meyer, Sr., Carnegie, Pa., 1947; to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R. I., 1948; to MFA, 1948, gift of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik.
Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865