Larry Rivers (1923-2002)
The Robert B. and Beatrice C. Mayer Family Collection
Larry Rivers (1923-2002)

The Last Civil War Veteran

Larry Rivers (1923-2002)
The Last Civil War Veteran
oil and charcoal on canvas
82 ¾ x 63 ¾ in. (210.2 x 161.9 cm.)
Painted in 1960.
Tibor de Nagy, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1960
N. Calas, “Larry Rivers,” Art International, vol. 2, 1 March 1961, p. 39 (illustrated).
M. Hand, The Passionate Collector: Robert B. Mayer’s Adventures in Art, Chicago, 2011, pp. 68-70 (illustrated in color).
Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Mayer, 1968, n.p., no. 59 (illustrated).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

Larry Rivers created an innovative body of work whose distinctive style formed a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and the beginnings of Pop Art—The Last Civil War Veteran remains one of his most important works. Painted at the height of the Civil Rights Era—around the time of the first sit-ins and a few years before the March on Washington in 1963—the painting touches on the shared memories of our collective past. The subject is taken from a Life magazine photograph of a man who was thought to be the last remaining veteran of the Civil War. It displays the two most highly charged emblems of America’s dark history—the Confederate flag and the American flag—that loom before the viewer in their larger-than-life display. In Rivers’s hands, the crisp designs of the flags softly dissolve, their features becoming partially obscured and fading into the background. The veteran soldier, too, seems to dissipate into thin air. Straddling the line between figuration and all-out abstraction, the painting calls into question our understanding of the past, causing the viewer to reflect upon their own interpretation of historic events. Ranked among the artist’s greatest paintings, The Last Civil War Veteran remains one of the most significant contributions to 20th century art. Only two other large-scale versions of The Last Civil War Veteran are known to exist; one is located in the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and another in the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Spanning a height of nearly seven feet, The Last Civil War Veteran engulfs the viewer with its imposing design, where two of the most powerful symbols of American history preside over the scene like ghostly sentinels. Lush in rich, saturated colors and lively, gestural swoops of the brush, the artist’s impassioned technique is at odds with the painting’s sobering imagery. Using brushy, expressive strokes, the artist renders a haunting scene, where the large-scale Confederate and U.S. flags are luridly colored, and exaggerated to larger-than-life sized scale. And yet, despite the artist’s emphatic gesture and the painting’s vivid palette, Rivers leaves many of the most crucial aspects of the work deliberately vague, imparting a wavering, unfinished quality to the piece. For instance, the features of the aged, bedridden veteran are delineated in the barest of means, and seem to dissolve before the viewer’s eye. Similarly, the veteran’s Confederate uniform can be seen hanging between the flags, but its details and insignia are almost wholly lost. The distinctive x-shape of the Confederate flag has been partially painted out, and the bright, white stars of both flags have lost their luster. Fading into the blue background, the stars flicker faintly, then are extinguished altogether. This uneasy marriage of abstraction and representation remains a hallmark of Rivers’s work.  

An artist whose career defied traditional categorization, Larry Rivers’s work continues to provoke and question. Coming of age during the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s, the artist inherited the gesture, spontaneity and lavish painterly display of the New York School, and yet, he worked from a distinctively wry, if not postmodern, sensibility. Beginning in 1953, with Washington Crossing the Delaware (based on the American painting by Emanuel Leutze) Rivers began a lifelong fascination with reinterpreting the iconic imagery of American culture, throwing long-established clichés and deeply-held beliefs into question as he rendered them in extravagant displays of brushy, richly textured paint. In many ways, Rivers’s work presaged Pop art, especially given the critical lens thru which he rendered his typically American subject matter. In this respect, his work has been described as “proto-Pop,” forming a link between Abstract Expressionism and the younger Pop artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, whom Rivers knew.

The Last Civil War Veteran is based on a color photograph that was included in the May 11, 1959 issue of Life magazine. It depicts the last surviving veteran of the Civil War, a man named Walter Williams, who was 116 years old at the time the photograph was taken. “Flanked by the two flags he has loved and a dress version of a Confederate uniform,” the Life article began, “the last living veteran of the War between the States lies in an uptilted bed, sleeping mostly, waking to eat and puff an occasional cigar.” The artist Ray Parker had sent the issue of Life to Rivers, accompanied by one word: “Go!” Thus began one of the artist’s most significant, politically-charged series. In the original photograph—itself a highly theatrical, staged image—the veteran lies propped up in his bed, flanked by the Confederate and U.S. flags displayed behind him, along with a dress version of his Confederate uniform. Rivers would have known the political and social implications of featuring the Confederate flag, which underwent a grim resurgence around the time the painting was created. In the years following the Civil war, the Confederate flag had fallen into disuse, and was rarely if ever displayed. Following World War II, however, the flag was taken up again by opponents to the Civil Rights movement in the deep South.

Much of what Rivers created in the 1950s and 60s, especially his pastiches of historical paintings, such as Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953) or his controversial painting of Napoleon Bonaparte, dealt with the inaccuracies of the historical record. His rewriting of history challenged prevailing accounts. Thus, rather than create a vision of the heroic soldier, as Life magazine had presented him, Rivers instead subtly inflects his rendition with a tongue-in-cheek twist. The artist had read, too, that the military record of the Civil War veteran featured in Life in 1959 was later called into question; research could not prove that he took part in the war, but he was nonetheless buried with honors. Rivers delighted in this, the ironic intersection of historic fact and prefabricated fiction. His version of the story challenges the tradition of historical wartime epic paintings, to instead, as the New York Times described, capture “the bad-dream quality of violence in the civil rights era” (H. Cotter, “Art Review: At Washington’s Lavish Art Buffet,” New York Times, May 31, 2002, p. E35).

Much in the way that Jasper Johns seized upon the American flag for its flat, graphic design, Rivers gravitated toward the recognizable logos of postwar America—cigarette packages, cigar boxes, currency—but he passed them through an expressionistic lens, obliterating their tight graphics in favor of more subtle, wavering imagery that was nevertheless lavishly-colored and rendered with expressive bent. As the art historian Barbara Rose wrote in the artist’s 2002 retrospective catalogue, “His surfaces are not the slick uninflected mechanical surfaces of graphics or advertising, but the clearly hand-painted and sensually textured surfaces we associate with old master painting itself, experienced directly rather than through a media filter” (B. Rose, “Larry Rivers: Painter of Modern Life,” in Larry Rivers: Art and the Artist, exh. cat., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2002, p. 29). In this way, the artist re-examines staid cultural stereotypes while luxuriating in the saturated colors and animated gestures that have come to define his best work. In his lushly-colored, haunting portrayals, Rivers holds up “a mirror of color” (as the poet John O’Hara described) to his viewers, forcing them to confront their own shared history in an utterly new way.

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