Sunday, October 26, 2014

New Market Battle Painting, Jackson Memorial Hall, VMI

"Walking into JM Hall, an individual will pass through the narthex, through antiquated double doors and into the main chapel. The painting’s dimensions immediately draw the gaze of the audience and will humble the viewer by its great size."

New Market Battle Painting

New Market Battle Painting by Benjamin Clinedinst attempts to encapsulate the spirit on which the institute bases its traditions. VMI's Chapel is a perfect place for this painting, unveiled in 1914; it stands tall in place at one of VMI's most revered buildings. Under its grandeur, VMI holds some of their most important ceremonies including, weekly General Committee trials where cadets govern each-other, class meetings, award ceremonies, weekly mass and the occasional wedding. The painting serves to remind its audience of the amazing actions of VMI’s corps of cadets during Civil War conflict on May 15, 1864, and to motivate them towards meaningful lives. In the presence of the painting, VMI’s cadets administer the institute standards, housed in a place of worship, and are often the gathering point for groups of men and women who come together every year to make strides towards honorable lives. New Market Battle Painting is set on display to inspire a mood of reverence and divine power in Institute cadets by the painting's sight lines, focal points, situation, and color palette.

Benjamin Clinedinst utilizes sightlines and focal points to depict the painful and ambiguous situation experienced by the New Market Cadets while communicating elements of divinity and reverence to his audience. The first observation the viewer will make is the sight line given through the battle lines of the cadets clad in Confederate uniform. From this first visual cue, we are able to determine the actions of the subjects. The cadets are seemingly led in a charge from stage right to stage left. This also brings the viewer to notice a focal point in the first few cadets. They are positioned at the front of the battle ranks with their bayonets forward, indicating direction and offering a contrast to the majority of cadets in the battle formation, who display their rifles as shouldered. Possibly the most interesting focal point is the artist’s use of battle smoke to portray that element of bravery amidst a chaotic battle. He further develops this cue by extending the focal point into a sight line of smoke that weaves between the legs of the cadets in the charge. Benjamin Clinedinst uses the smoke to symbolize bravery by insinuating war’s element of uncertainty, a notion that was especially prevalent in the moment that VMI’s young corps of cadets was ordered into battle. Connoting divine power, Clinedinst guides the viewer through the line of charging cadets, to the cloud of smoke, and portrayed the cadets heading into the unknown. The audience should succumb to a solemn reverence, observing these teenagers engaged in war. They were boys who became men and epitomized the institute’s definition of citizen soldiers and model VMI Cadets. Their act of bravery, highlighted by New Market Battle Painting’s focal points and sightlines, should resonate as reverence not only within JM hall, but as admiration in the minds of its audience.

The situation of Benjamin Clinedinst’s grandiose canvas on which he chose to portray his New Market Battle Painting facilitates the sentiment of reverence and encourages a divine presence. Walking into JM Hall, an individual will pass through the narthex, through antiquated double doors and into the main chapel. The painting’s dimensions immediately draw the gaze of the audience and will humble the viewer by its great size, subject matter aside. It seems as if Jackson Memorial Hall was built around New Market Battle Painting. The pews all face it, it is raised above all other objects, and it remains present behind preachers and judges alike. Admiration gains a foothold in the mind of the view as he is able to study the piece. While reflecting on the battle scene depicted, New Market Battle Painting’s dimensions allows the viewer to become lost in its detail and place themselves into the situation offered by the piece of art. Institute cadets, therefore, experience the scene depicted by personally inserting themselves into the battle, gaining an understanding of the sacrifice and perseverance of the subjects, and gaining perspective on the standard which was set in 1864 for all other classes to follow. They reflect, in VMI’s only place of worship, before Clinedinst’s piece and those he chose to portray in it.

Completing the interpretation of New Market Battle Painting by Benjamin Clinedinst is his choice of color palette. Using a dark mixture of greens, greys, blacks, fiery reds and oranges, Benjamin Clinedinst conveys the intensity of the battle. The sky is dark, the smoke is thick, almost as if the subjects are being suffocated in an ominous field, by an entity that is above their own understanding. The peach colored faces become indiscernible in the gray, making the unit of individual cadets charging forward seem like one mass flowing forward together. Fire arises in the background to highlight the intensity and peril that awaits the cadets. Clinedinst’s colors complement each other in a way that not only conveys the intensity of the battle, but as a reflection, portrays the motivating selflessness of the individuals involved. He painted a mass of gray soldiers uniting under their ensign to fight not only for their beliefs, but for those beside them, and the honor that they each hold. By utilizing these intense, sombering, colors he was able to create an image – and therefore a message – that will be remembered by his audience.

Beginning with his use of focal points and sight lines, Benjamin Clinedinst presents the masses of smoke connecting the cadets at New Market. He brings that smoke to a mass representing an ethereal uncertainty before the cadets. It provokes questions such as: would the cadets be able to emerge on the other side? Would all of them make it? The questions lead to conclusions involving the presence of a higher being among the cadets. Clinedinst further developed this conclusion with the chosen setting of the piece. While he could have created this dedication to VMI’s New Market cadets in barracks, where today’s cadets live every day, or an academic building, as the institute is first and foremost a college, he chose to set his piece in VMI’s chapel. As previously mentioned, the painting dominates the structure. New Market Battle Painting is at the front, regardless of the event in the venue. Principally, every Sunday, the painting remains. The pews face it; the worshippers sing in its direction, and the institute chaplain gives his sermon before it. To solidify the feeling of divine presence and reverence experienced by the painting’s viewers, Clinedinst’s color palette allows the painting’s subject matter to resonate beyond the building’s confines. In a place of worship, subject to reverence and admiration of its audience, Benjamin Clinedinst’s New Market Battle painting takes its place behind the altar.


"Benjamin West Clinedinst." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Oct.        2014.
"New Market Battle Painting by Benjamin West Clinedinst :: VMI Archives Photographs             Collection." New Market Battle Painting by Benjamin West Clinedinst :: VMI Archives           Photographs Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

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