Painting Shows University of Alabama’s History

Art paletteLast week, the University of Alabama was able to take a look into its past with a painting. Dean Mosher, who is a famous artist from Fairhope, revealed a painting depicting the Quad at the university as it would have been in 1831.

The painting, “The Birth of Alabama’s First Great University,” was unveiled on Nov. 8 at a ceremony held in the Pearce Grand Foyer of the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library.

Mosher was commissioned by UA’s president, Judy Bonner, to create a 6-foot by 14-foot, 9-inch canvas painting between November 2012 and July 2015.

The thing that made the painting so difficult was the fact that Mosher has very little to go on as far a photographic evidence of the university’s beginnings. There was actually just one photo for him to go off of, in fact.

“There is only one known photograph taken of the early campus that was taken in 1859 by a student in the center of the roof of the President’s Mansion looking at the campus” Mosher said.

With the help of Craig T. Sheldon, professor emeritus of archaeology Auburn University at Montgomery and Paul Kapp, director of the historic preservation program and associated professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Architecture, Mosher began to uncover the university’s past.

The men researched the materials used to construct the campus, where the original buildings actually were, and other small details to make the painting as realistic as possible. They also used the expertise of model maker Creighton “Peco” Forsman and global positioning expert David Hale in their re-creation.

“We knew we would have to rely upon the previous archeological excavations,” Sheldon said. “Fortunately, the records… of all previous excavations were curated at the museum at Moundville.”

The only real way to figure out where the original buildings were and what they looked like was to rely on excavations done on the campus. However, this only got them so far.

“One building we had no surface indications or previous excavations for was the faculty housing building,” Sheldon said.

They instead had to use a ground-penetrating radar in order to find where the faculty building had been located. The details were filled in by that single photo. Next, they created models of the campus at that time.

The buildings in the model included the Rotunda, the Lyceum, faculty residences, Franklin Hall, Washington Hall, Jefferson Hall, Madison Hall, the Gorgas House, and the President’s Mansion. The only buildings that had survived an 1865 fire set by Union troops were the Gorgas House and President’s Mansion. The Gorgas House is the only building that still stands on the current UA campus.

Once they made the models, they took pictures and laid them over the photograph they were working from originally.

“They absolutely, perfectly matched,” Mosher said. “And that is the way of coming back to saying you’ve got it nailed.”

The painting, models, and artifacts used for this project will be displayed in the Pearce Grand Foyer of the Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library.

The UA project is just another example of how much can stem from just one photograph. More and more people are using photos to get in touch with their own roots. With 3.5 trillion photographs taken since the first one 186 years ago, many people have at least one picture of an ancestor. This has led to the birth of “heritage tourism,” which UA will no doubt experience from its alumni with their new exhibit.

Heritage tourism is defined by The National Trust for Historic Preservation as a trip during which someone immerses themselves in places, people and/or artifacts that accurately represent the past. One woman shared her experience with this type of tourism:

“My husband thought that by seeing the places he had grown up in, the kids would have a better understanding of him,” said Michelle Robin La. “My husband’s extended family keeps their heritage alive in America with food, language and celebrations like the Lunar New Year. By traveling in Vietnam for a month we immersed the kids in the place these traditions came from.”