Friday, November 18, 2016

The Last Command: Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, by Kirk Stirnweis (2001)

The dramatic defeat of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876 has been the subject of several paintings by major artists.  But for today, I thought we would take a look at a work by the relatively little-known, working artist Kirk Stirnweis (born 1967), The Last Command: Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

Stirnweis was born in Suffern, New York, and grew up in Connecticut. He would eventually move with his own family to Montana, Arizona, and then back east to New Hampshire; while keeping a foothold in Loveland, Colorado.  His father was a professional illustrator, and his mother had a background in graphics.  He drew constantly as a child, and his family would often discuss art around the home.

During his high school summers, Stirnweis would draw and paint at the nearby Silvermine Artist Guild. During the same period he studied anatomy with a retired surgeon, taking one of the doctor’s first classes working with professional artists. Stirnweis was taught to master composition by copying the works of the Great Masters, and was encouraged to go into illustration to hone his skills to a professional level.

Kirk was educated at several different schools studying marine biology and medicine, holding degrees in radiologic sciences and Medical imaging. But his scientific studies did not keep him from art: immediately after high school he did illustration for Field& Stream, Harlequin Romance Novels and Leisure Books, and the Danbury Mint. 

Stirnweis says, For the past 20 years I have been painting and sculpting western/historical subjects, mostly Native Americans, mountain men, prairie women, land and seascapes nautical subjects and wildlife of all kinds. Out of the blue I was commissioned to paint Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn; a daunting task. To complicate matters I had virtually no knowledge of U.S. cavalry at the time and only scant knowledge of the battle. After months of intensive research, hours spent with experts on the subject and several visits to the battlefield; I started painting. Three months later I completed The Last Command. The homework was exhaustive but well worth it, the painting had reaped the distinction of being written up by a West Point graduate and historian as: “The most accurate depiction of the Custer Battle EVER!” An enlarged Copy of the painting now hangs in the renovated Museum of Military History in KS. Subsequently, I was invited to the 125th anniversary of the Little Big Horn Battle, where I met with Native American Veterans of Foreign Wars and Chiefs of the Crow Nation. They expressed their appreciation for the noble way that I depict their culture in my paintings and sculpture.

This is quite a dramatic painting, despite some rather telling flaws.  While Stirnweis has a great gift for painting dramatic faces, the figures all seem to inhabit different pictures, rather than act as an integrated group.  Indeed, in some figures, it seems as if they have no lower body whatsoever.  (Where is the rest of the bugler and his horse?)  Also under-realized are the two fallen horses, one on the left and the other, right.  Neither seem to fully inhabit the picture, and it looks like Stirnweis relied too heavily on tall grass to address issues of foreshortening.

But Stirnweis’ failings are solely those of technique: in terms of drama and composition, he performs admirably.  The gentle rise of the mountain allows the eye to read the frame from the fighters on the left, through the main action on the rise, and then scan back left (to the beginning) by following the trajectory of the arrows.  Stirnweis also uses the empty bask spaces of the West to heightened effect:  aside from another regiment battling in the distance, these men are alone and vulnerable.

Stirnweis also amps the drama by depicting many of the men already wounded or injured, but continuing to fight on.  The look of steely determination on the faces of the small knot of five men dead center of the picture tells the entire story. 

This is an admirable addition to the iconography of Little Bighorn.

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