Edwin D. White was one of several American artists who traveled abroad in the first half of the nineteenth century to pursue further education. Along with fellow artist Elihu Vedder, White had enrolled in the established Paris atelier of Francois-Edouard Picot by 1850. Dr. H. Barbara Weinberg writes that Picot was "a devout advocate of Neoclassical ideas...he was a highly respected painter of classical and French history, genre scenes, and portraitism as well as a muralist who received numerous commissions for church decoration in Paris." (The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers, New York, 1991, p. 46) After spending almost a year in Paris, White headed to Dusseldorf to study under Emanuel Leutze, where he was able to combine the classical style learned under Picot with the grand historical subject matter he witnessed in Leutze's studio.
Dr. Weinberg continues, "White had developed a lucid, linear style--similar to that of William Sidney Mount or Francis William Edmonds--even before undertaking study abroad...White also painted literary and religious themes, including six episodes from the life of Martin Luther. Ambitious American subjects appear more frequently in his oeuvre: scenes of exploration, settlement, the Revolution, and the Civil War. These include the widely reproduced Landing of the Hugenots in Florida, 1564 (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts), The Signing of the Mayflower Compact (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut), and Washington Resigning His Commission (Maryland State House, Annapolis). Clearly staged and dramatically 'acted'--seemingly indebted as much to contemporary theater as to historical research--these records of American history are closely related to those by Leutze." (The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and Their French Teachers, p. 50)
Named after a Revolutionary War hero, the formidable Fort Sumter was erected in 1829 to protect the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Major Robert Anderson had served as a captain under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War and was chosen to command the Federal forts in Charleston during the period of secession. After repeated threats by Confederate troops, demanding surrender of the Fort, Brigadier General Beauregard opened fire on the Fort in April 1861. After a three day onslaught, Anderson and his men were forced to evacuate on April 13th. The attack on Fort Sumter prompted four more states to join the Confederacy and immediately following the defeat, a formal declaration of war was issued by the Union toward the Confederate States of America.
In the present work, Major Anderson is shown kneeling at left. The other officers depicted in the scene from left to right are: Lt. Jefferson C. Davis (leaning on right forearm), Capt. J.G. Foster, Capt. Abner Doubleday, Lt. George W. Snyder, Lt. Norman J. Hall, Lt. Truman Seymour, Chaplain Mathias Harris, Surgeon Samuel W. Crawford, and Lt. Theodore Talbot (near banner at right).