Sometimes a small painting can tell a big story.
Such is the case with a six-by-nine-inch landscape by John S. Jameson. The painting is on display at the Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York, in the new exhibition, "Rally 'Round the Flag: Frederic Edwin Church and the Civil War.”
Born in 1842 in Hartford, John S. Jameson was a rising young star among the New York painters at the time of the Civil War. The patriotic tug of duty, however, changed his course.
A prodigy in both art and music, Jameson attracted attention in the 1850s while just barely a teenager. His father was the organist of a New York City church, and young Jameson soon learned to play the piano and organ. His skill was fine enough to prompt William Mason, an important American musician of the time, to seek him as his student.
His artistic talent was equally promising. Upon seeing Jameson’s potential, Frederic Edwin Church—himself formerly a prodigy under the tutelage of Cole—enthusiastically became Jameson’s mentor and friend.
In the late 1850s, with the Hudson River School in ascendancy, Church invited Jameson into his studio to see "Heart of the Andes," still in progress. Jameson must have been thrilled.
By 1861 Jameson was exhibiting his own landscapes at the National Academy of Design and with the Artists’ Fund Society. He took a room in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, along with Church and other eminent artists of the day, and received his first favorable critical notice.
His professional career would be short-lived. The Civil War was erupting in the midst of the Hudson River School’s pastoral reverie. Most of the landscape artists remained detached from the carnage; Sanford Gifford and Jervis McEntee both served, but neither engaged the enemy in battle.
Not so John S. Jameson. In late 1863 the fighting compelled the young painter to put down his brush. Friends tried to convince him not to enlist, or to accept a clerical position. Jameson wrote, “No; if I put on the blue I want to rough it with the boys in the field. I should be ashamed to be staying at home at my ease, while others were fighting at the front."
He enlisted in January 1864 and was sent to Baltimore, and then to Virginia. There, as a sergeant in the First Connecticut Cavalry, he was “a universal favorite among officers and men.” He volunteered for scouting duty even though he didn’t have to, and on one foray had his horse shot out from under him. Living in a tent on soldier’s rations he wrote to his mother, “Think of me as being better contented than I ever have been since the war commenced.”
While in camp, some soldiers formed an impromptu singing group and voted Jameson their leader. A “clear baritone tenor,” Jameson grew up listening to his mother sing in church. Now she sent her son song books, “sacred and patriotic,” so the soldiers could rehearse.
In the spring evenings, Jameson and the other soldiers would sing “for hours in the open air," and watch the distant, flickering signal lights of the Rebels across the river.
He was captured by the Confederates just a few months later while crouching for a drink at a stream. Deep inside enemy territory on a raid to destroy railroad supply lines, his regiment found itself surrounded and was scrambling to escape. Jameson, starving and exhausted in the sweltering Virginia heat, was cut off.
To the Confederates, he was only a bedraggled Yank. They stripped him of his belongings, sent him to Richmond, then crammed him in a box car with dozens of other soldiers and shipped him south.
In the oven-like compartment, Jameson’s already feeble condition worsened. When the train paused in North Carolina, he managed to trade his jacket to an African-American for a piece of cornbread.
The cars finally opened at Andersonville Prison Camp in southern Georgia.
From the realm of the musically sacred and the artistically sublime, Jameson had fallen into a scene from Dante’s Inferno.
Andersonville was a vile, overcrowded, open-air stockade teeming with thousands of desperate and dying Union soldiers. A filthy creek seeped through the middle of the camp like a Stygian tributary, serving as both sewer and water source. Intestinal diseases wasted some men into walking skeletons.
At the time Jameson arrived in July 1864, prisoners were dying at the rate of over one hundred per day. Semi-conscious, he was carried to the rudimentary hospital. He never again saw the open sky.
His mother learned of his fate when a fellow prisoner smuggled a list of the dead out of the prison at the end of the war. She wrote a letter to Frederic Church, expressing gratitude for the friendship he extended to her son, and included one of his paintings as a remembrance.
Church replied to her, “Of all the younger Artists whose personal acquaintance I have made, and whose works and characteristics of mind and heart came to my observation, no one has interested me so much as your son, or held out better grounded hopes of future high excellence.”
The little painting Jameson’s mother gave Church is pictured above. The view looks up a tree-lined stream towards distant buildings under sheltering hills. Someone’s home possibly, and in retrospect, perhaps symbolic of the homes to which soldiers lost in the Civil War would never return.
Accompanying it in the Olana exhibition are five Jameson paintings from private collections, the only others by this young Hudson River School prodigy known to exist. The exhibition, sponsored by Questroyal Fine Art in New York City, is on view until October 30.
Everett, Patricia R. "John S. Jameson (1842-1864)." The American Art Journal 15.2 (Spring 1983): 53-59.
Holmes, Theodore J. A Memorial of John S. Jameson Sergeant in the 1st Conn. Cavalry, Who Died at Andersonville, GA. N.P., 1866.
Ransom, John L. Andersonville Diary: Escape, and List of the Dead. Auburn, NY: John L. Ransom, 1881.