Geo. B. McClellan, U.S.A. Late Commander In Chief, an engraving from circa 1885, offers a distinct portrait of General George B. McClellan, likely produced posthumously. This piece, though attributed to a photograph, intriguingly amalgamates elements from different sources, providing a glimpse into both the general's persona and the practices of 19th-century printmaking.
The latter half of the 19th century in America was a period marked by Reconstruction, urbanization, and an ever-evolving national identity. As a figure who played a prominent role in the Civil War, McClellan's leadership, strategies, and later political ambitions made him a well-recognized public figure. His visage in this engraving, therefore, carried significance as it symbolized a complex chapter of American history.
What sets this engraving apart, however, is the curious melding of images and evidence of plate reuse. The very anatomy of McClellan seems to be a composite: while the face is rooted in a photographic origin, the body appears to belong to another individual altogether. Subtle anomalies, such as the discrepancy in hair parting and the barely perceptible ghost image of a different head lurking behind McClellan's, hint at the modifications undertaken. Moreover, the plate demonstrates signs of further modification; to the left, the engraved books obscure the faint remnants of a candle.
Such reuse of plates, as evidenced here, elucidates the economic and pragmatic approaches of print publishers during the 19th century. While adapting pre-existing materials was common, this specific piece becomes particularly intriguing due to its amalgamation of diverse elements, culminating in a portrait that not only commemorates McClellan but also subtly chronicles the artistry and adaptability of its era.