Friday, March 15, 2013

The Civil War and American Art at the Smithsonian

I recently had a chance to see "The Civil War and American Art" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  My only regret is that I didn't spread the word sooner about this captivating exhibition that closes at the Smithsonian on April 28.  If you get to Washington between now and then, make sure to stop by the museum.  Once the exhibition leaves the nation's capital, it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and remain there from May 27 to September 2, 2013.

The exhibition traces the impact of the Civil War era on art in the United States.  The Smithsonian has assembled an impressive array of 75 paintings and photographs to tell the story.  Many of these works will be familiar to Civil War enthusiasts, but there is something more intimate and powerful about studying an original painting or photograph in person, no matter how many times you've seen that same image in print.

By the mid-nineteenth century, artists in the United States had long since discarded the European style of grandiose history painting, and landscapes dominated the American art scene.  Exhibition curator Eleanor Harvey carefully selected paintings to demonstrate the dramatic influence that the conflict had on artistic expression.  The visitor quickly realizes that a landscape painting often represents something more than a depiction of the natural world on canvas.  Symbolism abounds, and the museum helps us make sense of it all with the ample use of interpretive labels.

As sectional division threatened the Union, paintings like Martin Johnson Heade's Approaching Thunder Storm (1859) reflected the nation's anxiety and foreshadowed the fratricidal conflict to come.  Frederic Edwin Church, a preeminent artist of the era, painted the eruption of an Ecuadorean volcano in Cotopaxi during the war's second year.  His imagery evokes Frederick Douglass' 1861 description of slavery as a "moral volcano."  The thick smoke and red hues recall the violence and chaos of the battlefield, while the partially blue sky offers some distant hope of the Union's redemption through bloodshed. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm (1859) (courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Frederic Church, Cotopaxi (1862) (courtesy of United States Travel).
As the struggle came to an end, artists contemplated the country's future in the aftermath of civil war.  Albert Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865) is verdant and alive with hope for a reunited nation.  The sun, hidden behind the rocks, beckons the country forward to a better, more serene place.  Likewise, the pilgrims in Church's Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) move towards a distant, shining city under a magnificent double rainbow.  The entire painting elicits feelings of peace and healing.

Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865) (courtesy of United States Travel).  This stunning masterpiece was one of my favorites in the exhibition.

Frederic Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) (courtesy of Urban Paddle).
The war also stimulated art in other, more predictable ways as artists focused their attention on military subjects.  But unlike history painting, with its glorified depictions of battles and leaders, the artists of the Civil War era tended to take a lower-key and more realistic approach.  Paintings by Winslow Homer, such as Home, Sweet Home (c. 1863), portray soldiers in camp, killing the hours of boredom and thinking of loved ones far away.  Sanford Robinson Gifford painted soldiers overshadowed by their natural surroundings, as in Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment, Arlington Heights, Virginia (1861).  Southern artist Conrad Wise Chapman is also here, with his intimate paintings of Confederate-occupied Ft. Sumter.  (As a special treat, the museum is exhibiting his painting of the Confederate submarine, Hunley.)

Winslow Homer, Home, Sweet Home (about 1863) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).  The only weak spot in the exhibition is the absence of drawings by sketch artists for the various newsweeklies.  The presence of so many of Homer's works helps to compensate for that shortcoming.  Homer was a sketch artist, and many of his paintings were based on his drawings from the field.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment, Arlington Heights, Virginia (1861) (courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum).  I particularly liked this depiction of the 7th New York State Militia's camp on the outskirts of Washington.  The exhibition also features Gifford's paintings of the 7th New York in Washington, Baltimore, and Frederick.
Conrad Wise Chapman, The Flag of Sumter, October 20 1863 (1863-64) (courtesy of Artinfo).  Chapman painted this scene while serving with the Confederate Army in Charleston. 
The difficult issues of slavery and race relations also emerge as a major theme in Civil War-era painting. The curator has selected a multitude of thought-provoking canvases that cause us to reflect on the meaning of slavery and emancipation.  Two paintings in particular demonstrate the social revolution that the Civil War brought to the nation.  Eastman Johnson's The Old Mount Vernon (1857) shows the first President's estate as we almost never see it.  The slave quarters are there front and center, right behind Washington's famous home.  A lone African-American man sits in the doorway.  Johnson's painting, whether intentionally or not, reminds us that the promises of our Founding Fathers had yet to reach millions of enslaved Americans. In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), painted over a decade after Appomattox, Homer depicts the radically altered relations between former slaves and slave owners throughout the South.  The elderly white woman keeps her distance from three black women who belonged to her family before emancipation.  Tension fills the air.  The entire scene feels bitter and cold, seething with resentment.  Homer's canvass shows us a post-war America that is a world away from Church's rainbows and Bierstadt's Western landscape.  

Eastman Johnson, Old Mount Vernon (1857) (courtesy of Critical Explorers).

Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The exhibition gives a prominent spot to Civil War photography.  This relatively new art form captured the carnage and destruction of war in a way that paintings or drawings never could have done.  The curator has selected some of the best-known works by George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O'Sullivan, and other famous photographers.  The bloated corpses at Antietam and Gettysburg, the Confederate dead scattered along the stone wall at Marye's Heights, the skeletal remains at Cold Harbor, the battlefields of the Atlanta Campaign, and the burned ruins of Columbia are all there.  The photographs remind us of the utter destruction that the war brought to the country.  We are just as shocked by these photographs today as were Americans of the Civil War generation.

Alexander Gardner, Confederate Dead, Antietam (Dunker Church in background) (Sept. 19, 1862)  (courtesy of Civil War Academy). 
George N. Barnard, Columbia, from the Capitol (1865) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
"The Civil War and American Art" deserves high praise.  The exhibition is a truly remarkable collection of paintings and photography.  No matter how many times you may have seen some of these images, you are certain to learn something new while walking through the galleries and studying the artwork.  We are left to ponder how the Civil War affected and transformed American art just as it did other aspects of American life and culture.

More Information & Sources

For more information about "The Civil War and American Art," including a slide show, picture album, webcasts, blog posts, and a calendar of events, visit the exhibition's website

Please note that because photography was not allowed in the exhibition galleries (and rightfully so), I have used images of the paintings and photographs reproduced elsewhere on the web.

The following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Howland Cotter, "American Eden, After the Fall," New York Times, Jan. 10, 2013; Eleanor Jones Harvey, "America's Moral Volcano," Disunion blog, Feb. 5, 2013; Philip Kennicott, "'The Civil War and American Art' Puts the Battle in the Background," Washington Post, Nov. 21, 2012; Smithsonian American Art Museum, "The Civil War and American Art": Teacher's Guide (2012).

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