Historical art prints of famous scenes from the War Between the States and other conflicts are all the rage now. Countless paintings by such fine artists as Don Troiani, Rick Reeves, Dale Gallon, Dan Nance, Mort Kunstler, Dale Gallon, Keith Rocco and others are readily available to history buffs. Thoroughly researched and superbly rendered, these works have done much to help us visualize how a particular battle or historic event may have played out. They have also helped refine our understanding of how the average fighting man of the time might have truly looked.
Yet, well before all the artists listed above came along there was a fellow by the name of Sidney E. King. If the name is not familiar, many of his works will be. They grace most of the National Park Service historic sites in the eastern United States. In fact, during his lifetime, King produced over 200 mural style paintings for the NPS. His story is an interesting one.
Born in Massachusetts in 1906, King knew from early on he wanted to be a painter. Those plans were nearly thwarted by the Depression. After losing a studio he had established the young artist eventually found a job as a sign painter. During WWII King camouflaged combat planes at Quantico, VA and designed aircraft insignia. Settling near Fredericksburg, VA, he continued to paint and eventually found gainful employment with the National Park Service. After that, his work commissions came fast and furious from many directions. King soon firmly established himself as an outstanding muralist noted for his meticulous research and historical accuracy. He proved a master of oils, acrylics, and water colors.
King became perhaps best known for his series of paintings of the Jamestown, VA settlement which were on display as early as 1957, when Queen Elizabeth II visited the US on the colony’s 350th anniversary. He also produced an outstanding series for the Yorktown National Battlefield Park. His Civil War related works include numerous murals for the Richmond, Petersburg, Manassas, Kennesaw Mountain, Gettysburg and Fredericksburg Battlefield Parks. Several of those paintings accompany this blog post. They are highly detailed and show actual occurrences and participants of the battles depicted.
King is also known for painting the largest mural ever to be rendered in the United States. Titled “Creation,” it measures 400 feet long by 75 feet high and covers the encircling walls of the dome on Mormon Temple Square in Salt lake City, Utah. He also illustrated many magazine articles and books including W. W. Hassler’s Colonel John Pelham: Lee’s Boy Artillerist and A Pictorial History of Jamestown by J. Paul Hudson.
Until the age of 92 the prolific Sidney King continued to paint six days a week and held two shows a year at his studio near Bowling Green, VA. He also taught art at Rappahannock Community College in Warsaw, VA. When he passed away at age 95 in Caroline County, VA, a true prodigy was lost.
So, next time you visit an eastern National Historical Park take a look around. There you are sure to find at least several superbly rendered paintings with the bold signature “S. E. King” standing as fitting memorials to this wonderful but little known historical artist.
By Bob Williams