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The Art of JAMA
May 26, 2015

The Last Civil War VeteranLarry Rivers

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Copyright 2015 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2015;313(20):2006-2007. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.11765

The Last Civil War Veteran is a 1961 painting by the American artist Larry Rivers (1923-2002) of a frail old man resting quietly under the rival emblems of the American Civil War. The backdrop of banners overwhelms the figure of the man whose features are fading into the sheets. The composition was based on a Life magazine photograph of Walter Williams, who was believed to be the last surviving veteran of the Civil War. Rivers chose this subject for his painting because he was intrigued by mass-circulation imagery and contemporary perspectives on historical events. He was not so much a storyteller as an observer of the ways that stories are told. Rivers first became interested in the subject of a lost generation of soldiers when he painted a picture of the next-to-last Confederate veteran, who was reported to have died at the age of 112 on St Patrick’s Day in 1959. The Confederate soldier’s passing left Walter Williams as the last known Civil War veteran, but after Williams died, a search of official records indicated that he was too young to have served in the war. He was buried with honors anyway, and to Rivers, the lack of authenticity made the story all the more interesting.

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