An interesting look at a painting of General Sherman in 1866. Paintings do not bulk very large in our historical memory of the Civil War. The cutting edge technology of photography had by the Civil War usurped the role of painting in preserving the images of the famous for posterity. Sherman looks distinctly more haggard and old in his Civil War photographs than in this 1866 portrait. Of course, it is post war, so some of the difference is no doubt due to the easing of the burden of command and the trauma of war that Sherman had to the full during the conflict. However, paintings do seem to often smooth the rough edges of the subjects of portraits with a calm that may not have been typical of the person being painted. Photographs, even the primitive photography of the Civil War era, captured the more immediate emotions of the subjects than a portrait painted over several sittings. Additionally, photographs made no pretensions to be art, but simply a utilitarian means of preserving likenesses, while portrait paintings usually strove to be both.
The portrait was painted by George Peter Alexander Healy, perhaps the most renowned American portrait painter of his day. Sherman, at least as represented in popular memory as a no nonsense soldier, one would expect to have a fairly prosaic mind and not to be interested in art. Such was not at all the case. Sherman suggested to the painter a portrait known as The Peacekeepers which recalled a meeting of Lincoln, Grant and Sherman near the end of the War:
In Chicago about June or July of that year, when all the facts were fresh in my mind, I told them to George P. A. Healy, the artist, who was casting about for a subject for an historical painting, and he adopted this interview. Mr. Lincoln was then dead, but Healy had a portrait, which he himself had made at Springfield some five or six years before. With this portrait, some existing photographs, and the strong resemblance in form of [Leonard Swett], of Chicago, to Mr. Lincoln he made the picture of Mr. Lincoln seen in this group. For General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself he had actual sittings, and I am satisfied the four portraits in this group of Healy’s are the best extant. The original picture, life-size, is, I believe, now in Chicago, the property of Mr. [Ezra B. McCagg]; but Healy afterwards, in Rome, painted ten smaller copies, about eighteen by twenty-four inches, one of which I now have, and it is now within view. I think the likeness of Mr. Lincoln by far the best of the many I have seen elsewhere, and those of General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself equally good and faithful. I think Admiral Porter gave Healy a written description of our relative positions in that interview, also the dimensions, shape, and furniture of the cabin of the “Ocean Queen”; but the rainbow is Healy’s—typical, of course, of the coming peace. In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening. Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter’s letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying that “if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville, we would have him between our thumb and fingers,” suiting the action to the word. It matters little what Healy meant by his historic group, but it is certain that we four sat pretty much as represented, and were engaged in an important conversation during the forenoon of March 28, 1865, and that we parted never to meet again.