Throughout the Roanoke area, you may have seen in a public building a detailed painting of what was the village of Salem a decade before limited Civil War destruction came to our area.
Colorful orchards and fields dominated by the mountain wall dwarf the shops and houses, one of which now contains The Salem Museum. The familiar picture was painted by a German artist, Edward Beyer, who visited the developing United States from 1848 to 1858 and left his mark through dozens of oil and lithograph works.
At its January meeting at the museum, members of the city’s historical society and others who came free to the lectures heard of the artist from George A. McLean Jr. He’s a Roanoke attorney and represented Roanoke’s historical society with insights into some of the Beyer scenes.
The Roanoke art supporters have published a small book with reproductions of many Beyer works; McLean wrote the introduction and offered his Salem audience some highlights about the now-valuable paintings.
They are still being found, he said, and even those damaged by storage through the 150 years are prized. One the artist did of the town of Buchanan narrowly escaped destruction in the flood of 1985 when the James River took out buildings near its banks.
Though the young German and his wife spent time in the Niagara Falls area and in “the West” around dirty Pittsburgh, he seems to have especially loved Virginia’s mountain valleys with their “healing” springs and the technological marvel of that age, the railroads, McLean explained.
To earn a living, as was common for artists of his time, Beyer painted scenes of towns like Salem, Buchanan and Wytheville as well as huge wall depictions of notable events in history similar to the Civil War battle Cycloramas found today in Gettysburg and Atlanta.
Some years ago, the Salem history supporters made available a collection of 39 Beyer prints known as “The Album of Virginia.” I treasure two of the collection showing separate views of a small peak in what is now West Virginia.
McLean pointed out that while the famous view of Salem apparently was sighted from East Hill, Beyer’s artistic skills enabled him to “see” the town from above the ground. While capturing the view from the Sharp Top rocks in Bedford County, he painted himself with his pad on an overhanging ledge.
Returning to his roots in Dusseldorf, Germany, Beyer did not long survive his American adventure. He died in 1865 as the Civil War was ending and the technique of Impressionism was overtaking the style of meticulous detail so evident in the Beyer landscapes, the speaker noted. – Submitted by Frances Stebbins