Tom Lovell

Tom Lovell - Surrender at Appomaomattox
Art can be a time machine, transporting us backward not only with paintings that have survived from the past, but with reconstructions of the past by contemporary artists.

Tom Lovell considered himself “…a storyteller with a brush, a custodian of the past.” Best know as one of the premiere painters of the historical American West, he also created a famous series of paintings of the battles and events of the American Civil War for Life magazine, commemorating the centennial of the war’s end. He also painted other works depicting events from the Civil War, including the painting above, for National Geographic magazine.

Lovell was born in New York and his childhood fascination with the American Indian was fueled by visits to the collections in the Museum of Natural History where he would spend hours sketching the exhibits.

Armed with a fine arts degree from Syracuse University, he became an illustrator for pulp magazines like The Shadow and Wild West Weekly, eventually moving up to better paying assignments for mainstream magazines like Colliers, Cosmopolitan, Time, Life, National Geographic, and others.

In 1944 Lovell enlisted in the U.S. Marines, with the intention of becoming a combat artist, but was instead assigned to Leatherneck Magazine.

In the 1970’s Lovell was commissioned to paint a series of historical paintings portraying events in the Permian Basin in Western Texas for the Abell-Hanger Foundation. These are in the collection of The Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas.

Lovell has also painted other historical scenes; here is a page with a pencil drawing, color rough and finished painting for The Battle of Hastings.

Lovell remains a very popular Western and historic artist and you will find prints of his work on many of the commercial print services, as well as limited edition prints.

The Art of Tom Lovell: An Invitation to History and Tom Lovell : Storyteller with a Brush are both out of print, but can be found used.

Lovell’s paintings are richly colored, often dramatically composed and filled with the kind of visual textures, details and touches that make a historical scene feel alive.

One of Lovell’s notable illustration clients was National Geographic magazine. Among his commissioned works for the magazine was the painting shown here, Surrender at Appomaomattox, in which the Civil War came to its official end.

This painting is part of a collection of paintings from the National Geographic Archives that will be on display at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania starting this weekend (more information about that exhibition in tomorrow’s post).

In this image, Lovell’s use of rough scumbling for textures of the walls is in marked contrast to the refined handling of the faces, which are rich with subtle colors.

What strikes me about this painting in particular is the composition. Lee and his military secretary are awash with light in the foreground, appearing dignified and gentlemanly as Lee signs the surrender papers, and commanding the generous space around them. Almost pushed into the corner, Grant and his Union brass form a dark mass in the background. Grant is seated a much less imposing table (perhaps this is historically accurate, I don’t know) and seems to have a troubled expression on his face, as if worried that Lee might change his mind at any second. The other Union officers seem likewise impatient. I don’t know anything about Lovell’s feelings about the role of the two factions in the Civil War; it’s just… interesting.

The interpretation of the past, whether in words or painted images, requires a point of view.

13 Replies to “Tom Lovell”

  1. I had the rare privilege of meeting Tom Lovell in the early 90s, and in my correspondence with him up until his untimely death he was very generous with his painting knowledge–which I’ll share over time in my blog posts. I think of Lovell as one of the last illustrators of the Pyle/Brandywine spirit, and he greatly admired Dunn and Pyle especially. He was also a close friend of Harry Anderson, who you spotlighted recently, and both of them have said they influenced each other.

    Besides the sources you mentioned, there are good articles about Lovell and his methods in the North Light Collection, Vol 2, 1979, edited by Walt Reed, and in a December, 1956 article in American Artist.

  2. What a terrific opportunity that was. Thanks for sharing the additional info an isight.

    Fo the benefit of other readers, James Gurney’s blog, Gurney Journey is a cornucopia of painting knowledge and insightful observations, and his promised posts on Lovell’s techinques should be well worth looking for.

  3. Charley,
    Thanks for this post regarding the art of Tom Lovell. The link to The Battle of Hastings was great. Coincidentally, I am finishing the book Journey to Chandara written and illustrated by fellow ‘commenter’ James Gurney. Awesome work by both artists.
    Thank you,

  4. Thank you for pointing out this painter, I really like the post you’ve got there. Very informative and makes me want to learn more about Tom Lovell. Thanks.

  5. Great Post, Charley.

    I’m dating myself here, I know, but when Geographic published this, I think on the 100th anniversary of the end of the Civil War (1965) the painting was much remarked upon for its faithfulness to the actual event. The portraits are all officers known to have been in the room and perhaps not surprisingly the furniture is indeed as it was in the room itself. Grant, you’ll notice, wears mud-spattered boots and a military jacket that bears no indication of his rank, whereas Lee, always a gentleman, is in full parade dress, observations made by diarists present at the signing. Lovell and Geographic were fastidious about these sorts of recreations.

  6. Thanks for the perspective, Dan. I had assumed historical accuracy based on whatever information was available, I just find his choice of compositional arrangement of the participants fascinating.

  7. I agree with James comment about Lovell being the last of Brandywine tradition. Though, Keith Rocco certainly has a bit of that in his work.

    Thanks for posting this, as I think Tom Lovell is often overlooked among the great illustrators. His Civil War paintings played a large role in my interest in history and art.

  8. I like that earnest, bulldog look the artist has given to General Grant. Thanks for posting this. It brings back the story and the facts as I’ve read them.

    Evidently, Grant had had a bad couple of days leading up to this event, dogging the heels of Lee wherever he turned, splitting his forces to head off Lee’s retreat, losing his luggage and suffering with a migraine headache throughout. He was never a fastidious dresser, but it’s no wonder he was especially the worse for wear in this instance.

    Interestingly, the dark haired man in Union uniform, standing just behind Grant, was a full-blooded Iroquois who shares your last name: Colonel Ely Parker.

  9. Thanks for the comments.

    I agree that Lovell is unjustly overlooked.

    I wasn’t aware of the details of the events of this day. Nice to have some additional background.

  10. excellent painting, I wish I had been able to feature this in my art gallery in Los Angeles.

    The artist hits that wonderful place where the detail is exquisite and realistic, but still looks like a painting and not a photograph.

    Good post!

    learn how to draw

  11. i have this painting, i got it from and old house. it is for sale if anyone is interested in it. you can call carol @ 931-685-9488. the pic, i have says.
    Surrender at Appomattox April 9 1865. by Tom Lovell serious call only. or you can e-mail me @

  12. I visited Tom Lovell in 1981 at his home in Santa Fe. I studied illustration at Art Center in Los Angeles and long admired his work. During a hiatus from my animation job at Disney’s I got a ride from a friend to Telluride, then hitchhiked to Silverton, then Durango to Taos-Santa Fe to Albuquerque and flew home from there. I was brazen enough to phone Mr. Lovell and he was kind enough to allow me to come by with a painter friend from Taos. He said he accepted my request because he did same type of thing ‘visiting’ artists he admired when he was young. We got to spend 2 1/2 hours with him and he described his process, which included intensive research into the authenticity of artifacts used in his paintings. If my memory serves me right, I believe he was responsible for locating one of these two tables (that was the actual table used during the signing) during his research travels for this painting.

    1. Wonderful account. Thanks, Tom. I admire the way the old-school illustrators would often be generous with their time for younger admirers, often because, as you point out, they had the experience of being on the receiving end of similar consideration from their predecessors.

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