Henry Mosler, famous artist and Civil War correspondent, cultivated his talent while living in Cincy

Posted at 12:00 PM, Jun 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-18 12:00:08-04

CINCINNATI -- Imagine it’s September 1861 and you are Henry Mosler: 20 years old, an accomplished artist, adventuresome and working as a war correspondent and illustrator for the nation’s most popular news magazine, Harper’s Weekly.

Henry Mosler painted this self portrait in 1907 while living in New York.

You had your first illustration, “Divine Service at Camp Dennison, Ohio,” published on June 22, 1861, yet it’s nothing like the paintings you will create later in life that make you internationally known.

Right now, the only future you’re thinking about is tomorrow, as you shadow Union troops in Louisville under the command of the hero of the Battle of Fort Sumter, Brig. Gen. Robert Anderson, the man whose portrait you drew earlier this year that landed you the job with Harper’s.

Perhaps feeling a bit bold and ambitious, you disregard advice to stay put with the 9th Indiana Volunteer Regiment in Louisville. You mount a steed and ride into the wilderness toward Muldraugh Hill, Kentucky, to seek out the “scene of hostilities.” You have no idea that you will be halted in your tracks by none other than Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

Later, you will share your fateful experience with the “Cincinnati Commercial Gazette:”

“I had not gone very far when I was overtaken by a peculiarly dried-up specimen of a man, his blue uniform covered with dust, and his raw-boned horse looking more like a plaster cast than a Kentucky thoroughbred, commanding a regiment of soldiers who were going to the line of battle.

‘What are you doing here?’ yelled the musty-looking soldier. ‘I am an artist for Harper’s Weekly,’ was the reply. ‘Well, go home. We don’t want any artists sketching around here.’ I made no reply, and he galloped on. When I got to (Union Gen. Lovell) Rousseau’s headquarters I found him bowing and saluting my crusty acquaintance. ‘Hello, you have got here, have you?’ he exclaimed, and I found he was General Sherman. … I soon got better acquainted with General Sherman and, although General Sherman never became a lover of newspaper people, I was indebted to him for many favors.”

Thus began the amazing story of a Jewish immigrant who sold cigars and newspapers on the streets of New York as a boy; moved with his family to Cincinnati at age 10; paid 96 cents for paints and a set of brushes at age 16; apprenticed under Cincinnati artists Horace C. Grosvenor and James Henry Beard; published 34 Civil War scenes in Harper’s Weekly; and studied painting in Dusseldorf, Germany, and Paris for three years.

Henry Mosler's image of the temporary pontoon bridge that crossed the Ohio River at Cincinnati was published by Harper's Weekly.

He won numerous medals while living in Brittany for 20 years; became the first American artist to sell a painting to the French government; painted portraits of famous soldiers, politicians (including Cincinnati ward lord George “Boss” Cox), members of high society, American Indians, as well as everyday and patriotic subjects; mentored young artists for more than 20 years; and belonged to the prestigious National Academy of Design.

Whew! Who knew you would have such a life, war correspondent Gustave Henry Mosler (1841-1920).

One of Eight Children

Mosler was born along with seven siblings in a small Prussian town in what is now the Czech Republic. He taught himself to draw as a young boy and landed a job at age 14 with a comic paper in Cincinnati called “The Omnibus.” His informal teachers included a wood engraver (Grosvenor), a hat maker/amateur artist (George Kerr) and a portrait artist (Beard). Mosler lived in Cincinnati for about 20 of his 78 years.

Of his drawings for Harper’s Weekly, 18 were of the Union Army’s campaign in Ohio and Kentucky in 1862. Harper’s, which launched in 1857 as a literary magazine but became a news organization after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, received Mosler’s drawings via train, ship or horse courier.

Henry Mosler captured activity surrounding the Defense of Cincinnati, which was a key turning point in the Union's efforts to keep the Confederate Army from crossing the Ohio River into the North.

Mosler drew a wide range of imagery: fighting, building, camping out, forts and civilian gatherings. Six of his pages in Harper’s depicted the Defense of Cincinnati: the return of the militia after a rebel retreat; Fort Mitchell; canons, tents and buildings erected as part of the fortifications above the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky; architect Wesley Cameron’s pontoon bridge across the river; volunteers drilling at the Fifth Street Market in downtown Cincinnati; and three images of defense preparation in Cincinnati. And he drew a portrait at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, of Cincinnati’s Brig. Gen. Alexander McCook, the highest ranking of the 14 members of the famous Fighting McCooks.

Mosler also wrote for Harper’s and kept a diary, using poor grammar and spelling at times. He described war skirmishes in detail as well as his dreams, and he wrote about how awed he was by clouds, sunsets and the black sky at night. He detailed encounters with beautiful girls, hospitable Southerners, barking dogs and forests felled and damaged by warfare.

Mosler came down with “camp fever” in November 1862. After almost 18 months in the field of war, he returned to Cincinnati to recover. By June 1863, he was off to Germany for three years to study painting under some of Europe’s finest artists before returning to Cincinnati, where he married Sarah Cahn in 1869.

Five Years in Cincinnati

Back in Cincinnati, Mosler’s father, Gustave, had begun building a successful bank safe manufacturing business that involved several of his children. Henry, however, worked as a portrait painter for the next five years until returning in 1874 to Europe where he and his wife had their first of five children.

"The Quadroon Girl" (1878) by Henry Mosler hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo provided by the Cincinnati Art Museum

They settled in Brittany and Mosler began painting narrative scenes from everyday life, some of which won him prestigious exhibition prizes and medals and now hang in museums in Europe, Australia, New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Cincinnati.

His 1878 portrait “The Quadroon Girl,” which is based on a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem about a girl whose father sold her into sexual slavery, hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Mosler lived his last 26 years in New York, teaching and producing a number of patriotic paintings. He died of heart failure in 1920 and was buried with Masonic rites.