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The Coffle on the Natchez Trace,
Carl Hirschberg (1854-1923)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
54 1/2 x 77 3/8 inches
Status: Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina

A genre painter and illustrator, Carl Hirschberg was born in Berlin, and came to the United States with his parents, settling in New York City, where he began school at the age of six. At fourteen, Hirschberg apprenticed as a wood engraver, but gave it up three years later to study drawing at the National Academy of Design. In 1875, when the Art Students League was formed, Hirschberg became one of the original members. He studied figure painting with Walter Shirlaw, then went to England where he met and subsequently married a young British artist, Alice Kerr-Nelson. Hirschberg continued his art education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris under Cabanel and Lefebvre. In 1884, following the birth of their first child, the Hirschbergs moved to the United States, settling in New Rochelle and then in Buffalo, New York. According to their son, the artist George Laurence Nelson, "working together as a team, "the two artists" would set the pattern for American design in calendars and fashion literature, painting in oil, and water color, and etching" (Nelson, "New Life for Old Timber," p. 29).            

While little is known about Hirschberg's career, like most of his generation of European-trained artists, he faced the problem of what to paint to meet nationalistic expectations. After the Civil War and into the 1890s there was a general longing for "home subjects." Between 1885 and circa 1900 Hirschberg produced several specifically "American" pictures.  {Decoration Day}, painted in 1885, depicts a group of little girls, mature ladies and Union soldiers decorating the grave of a Civil War hero. {The Veteran of 1893}, possibly inspired by Thomas Hovenden's contemporaneous tributes to Civil War veterans, shows an attractive young woman pinning a medal on a Union officer's lapel, while a little boy stands at his side. In sharp contrast to these domestic scenes, {The Contrabands} is ostensibly a Civil War subject. Updating the theme of hunted fugitive slaves it shows a group of shackled men, women and children being herded like cattle toward an unspecified place. While history inspires the subject, the work is an historical genre picture of an incident that could have happened to African-Americans in the path of war. Its epic scale suggests that it was intended for exhibition, possibly at the National Academy of Design in New York, where Hirschberg showed from 1885 until 1893, or as part of a presently unknown mural scheme related to the Civil War.  


This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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