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[Detail] Battle [drawing], Hillen

Graphic Arts: Analyzing Symbols

A symbol is an image or object that represents something else. For example, on maps, an image of an airplane may be used to represent an airport. The airplane image is a simple, easily understood symbol. In a cartoon, an eagle may be used to represent the United States. The eagle is a more complex symbol; it was chosen to represent the United States because its strength, courage, and freedom were qualities early leaders hoped the new nation would have. As with the eagle, symbols are chosen to communicate a lot without using words.

Symbols can be seen in the work of Adalbert John Volck. Volck was a Baltimore dentist who sympathized with the Confederate cause. He created many cartoons or caricatures expressing his views on such topics as conscription, Northern treatment of African Americans, and the actions of both the Union and Confederate armies.

Analyze the Volck etching “Writing the Emancipation Proclamation." Look carefully at any symbols you can find in the picture, and answer the following questions:

  • How did Volck portray Lincoln?
  • What symbols did he use to show that Lincoln was under the influence of the devil?
  • According to the Volck etching, what regard did Lincoln have for the Constitution of the United States?
  • What was Volck’s purpose in having two pictures in the background of John Brown as “St. Osawatomie” and a slave uprising entitled St. Domingo?

According to information in the Civil War Treasures collection, Volck was trying to offset the success of Northern cartoonist Thomas Nast. Go to the list of Volck’s etchings and select several to examine in depth. Conduct an Internet search using Thomas Nast as your search term; analyze several of Nast’s Civil War era drawings.

  • What similarities do you note in the work of Volck and Nast? Do they use any symbols that are similar?
  • What differences do you note in the work of Volck and Nast? Do they use different symbols to represent the same thing?
  • Had you been alive in the 1860s, whose work do you think would have had a greater impact on you? Why?