Lot of 19 watercolor paintings depicting scenes from the Point Lookout Federal Prison Camp in Southern Maryland. Ink, pencil, and watercolor on paper. Nineteen separate sheets, varying in size, with images of approximately 6 x 8.5 inches. Sketches were created by Private John Jacob Omenhausser, Virginia 46th Infantry, while incarcerated at Point Lookout from June 1864 – June 1865.
John Jacob Omenhausser (1832-1877) was born in Philadelphia to German-born parents. Prior to the war he was employed as a currier in Baltimore, Maryland, and later as a confectioner in Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted into Confederate service at Richmond on April 21, 1861, just nine days after shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Initially Omenhausser was mustered into “A” Co. VA 59th Infantry, but on August 13, 1861, he was transferred into “A” Co. VA 46th Infantry. Records indicate that Omenhausser was listed as a POW on February 8, 1862 at Roanoke Island, and was paroled approximately two weeks later. He went on to serve again in the Carolinas and in Virginia before being taken once more as a POW at Petersburg on June 15, 1864. Omenhausser would spend the next year at Point Lookout Prisoner of War Camp before taking the Oath of Allegiance on June 9, 1865.
While Omenhausser’s regiment did see combat, it was not fiery battlefield engagements that captured the artistic eye of this soldier. Instead, it was the daily experiences of the incarcerated soldier that came to life with his hand. Point Lookout POW Camp was established following the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and would grow to become the largest POW facility in the North. Confederate prisoners were held within a wooden walled pen and had only tents as their shelter. Like most Civil War prisons, conditions at the camp became increasingly deplorable as more and more prisoners filled its confines, far exceeding intended capacity. It is believed that because Omenhausser had relatives in the North, he had access to supplies including paper, brushes, and inks. The artwork he created with these supplies would ultimately ease the difficulty of his imprisonment as he used his creations to barter with other soldiers for much sought after items including money, tobacco, crackers, etc. In creating these depictions of camp life, Omenhausser meticulously documented not only the extreme hardship faced by the prisoners, but also encapsulated race relations, the prison economy, and everyday moments that characterized the citizen-soldier’s POW experience.
All of the watercolors in this lot feature representations of captivity at Point Lookout. The nineteen drawings offered here may have originated in one of the five separate sketchbooks or one album known to have been created by Omenhausser. Presumably, these sketches were long ago separated from their original grouping(s) and sold independently. Taken as a whole it is not the artistic merit that makes these watercolors so extraordinary, rather it is the unvarnished and genuine glimpse into the soldier’s POW experience that gives them immeasurable historical value. The sketches in this collection feature vignettes of haircuts on the beach, men laundering clothes, tobacco peddlers, the prison cookhouse, and fishing on the bay among others. Most striking, however, are Omenhausser’s depictions of the relationship between African American soldiers and Confederate POWs in the camp. Fully half of the drawings in this collection portray United States Colored Troops, depicting both the racism of the prisoners and harsh treatment meted out by black guards on their white captives.
A hallmark of Omenhausser sketches is the captioning he includes to annotate them. It is these captions that bring the artistic renderings fully to life. In Ross M. Kimmel and Michael P. Musick’s book “I am Busy Drawing Pictures” The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, CSA, the authors note that “A striking feature of Omenhausser’s wartime sketches is that nearly all were intended to be humorous, or at least sardonic. This, we think, is unique among large collections of Civil War artists’ work, folk or professional.” Indeed, many of the nineteen drawings are representative of that dark humor, as in “A Sentinel Accidently Shot By His Companion” which depicts white prisoners smiling and mocking as an African American soldier stands over the lifeless, bloodied body of another African American sentinel. The caption below the illustration reads in part, “No. 1 Jack! whats the matter with that darkie./ “ 2. Why the other darkie give that fellow his discharge.”
Omenhausser is known to have made multiple renderings of similar scenes. Many sketches in this collection have nearly identical counterparts which are currently part of other collections. Additionally, watercolor sketches presented here have been reproduced in some form in other publications including Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates (1983) by Edwin W. Beitzell, Sketches from Prison: A Confederate Artist’s Record of Life at Point Lookout Prisoner-of-War Camp, 1863-1865 (1990) by Ross M. Kimmel, and Kimmel and Musick’s The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, CSA.
Kimmel and Musick have identified 290 surviving wartime Omenhausser renderings, with 278 of these pictures known to have been drawn at Point Lookout. The authors have also identified five known Omenhausser sketchbooks which can be found at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the Maryland Historical Society, the Lawrence Lee Pelletier Library at Allegheny College, the University of Maryland at College Park, and the Maryland State Archives respectively, with smaller groups of sketches also present in other institutional and private collections. Though other Civil War artists have undoubtedly left their mark with their portrayals of the conflict, Omenhausser’s sketches represent a particularly vibrant and authentic contribution to the realm of POW folk art. Even more, the very limited number of Omenhausser renderings in private hands make this offering a remarkable and rare opportunity to own pieces of history from this prolific Civil War folk artist.
Paintings are generally in good condition given age. Refer to photos for detailed imagery of individual paintings.
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