Tracing History Illustrator's Portraits Capture Civil War Generals' Personalities

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Dibble

Ask Jim Weren about any Civil War general and he'll tell you a story - maybe two or three - and likely show you a portrait he's done.

Take Ulysses S. Grant. Short, rumpled, cigar-smoking, he didn't look all that soldiery, Weren says. He was soft-spoken, queasy at the sight of blood and totally in love with his wife.

Grant resigned the Army once amid rumors of heavy drinking and proceeded to fail at several civilian ventures.

After the Civil War erupted, Grant wasn't immediately accepted back in the Army as field commander. But once he gained a commission, his rise was meteoric.

"He started as a colonel. A month later, he was a brigadier general," says Weren, a Naperville illustrator and Civil War buff.

"A year later, he was a major general. Three years later, he was lieutenant general and the supreme commander of the Union Army."

Weren will display his detailed pencil portraits of Grant and 35 other Civil War generals at 7 p.m. April 30 at Naperville's 95th Street Library, 3015 Cedar Glade Drive.

Along with his drawings, he'll shares anecdotes and historical facts that highlight the generals' strengths and weaknesses. His purpose is to make the person beyond the portrait come alive.

"I've tried to impart their personalities in the face," he says.

A chance to draw

For Weren, it's a departure from his 40-year career in the Chicago marketplace as an illustrator, art director and creative director.

"I never had a chance to draw when I was a commercial artist," he says. "I was always a manager."

His choice of subject would be a surprise to his younger self. When Weren studied the Civil War in school, he learned names, dates and places with as much apathy as any other kid.

His interest was sparked some 30 years ago when he saw the movie "Gone with the Wind" while traveling through the South on business.

After leaving the commercial art world in 1990, Weren went into the hobby store business and indulged his fascination with the Civil War by reading a few hundred books about it.

His research deepened after he retired in 2000. By 2005, when he started his drawings, he had decided the generals were what fascinated him most.

Weren says they can best be described by paraphrasing the words of Admiral William Halsey, "There are no extraordinary men - only ordinary men doing the best they can when faced with extraordinary circumstances."

So far, he's drawn 60 of the Civil War's 1,008 generals. Many of those leaders started with no military experience.

"They were characters," Weren says. "These guys were eclectic and diverse. The secret was if you could fight and you could win, you got promoted. …