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Works in Smithsonian show gritty realism, belie romantic notions

| Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 5:54 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Paintings and photographs depicting the raw reality of the Civil War marked a major change in American art that tossed out romantic notions of war.

Some of the finest artists of the day, including Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford, painted landscapes and scenes of everyday life to show how the war transformed the nation. Their best works, along with some of the first photographs of soldiers killed on the battlefield, have been gathered by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for a major exhibition on how artists represented the war and how the war changed art. “The Civil War and American Art” is on view in Washington through April and then moves to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey spent years researching the project and borrowing many of the 75 works featured in the show. It features Civil War scenes from Washington, Baltimore, New York, and points south at Fort Sumter, Charleston, S.C., Georgia and Virginia.

Rather than make portraits of war generals and heroes, however, artists of the day focused on the common man. There was a realization that “art that presents normal human beings, rather than celebrities and luminaries, carries more lasting weight.”

One painting in the show, Gifford's 1862 painting “Preaching to the Troops,” depicting a scene near Washington, was displayed in the Oval Office for 13 years.

Photographs had perhaps the greatest impact on art of the era. Battlefield photographs by Alexander Gardner showing piles of dead soldiers and images by George Barnard showing Charleston in ruins destroyed any romantic notions of war being a heroic adventure. Such images were shown in art galleries in the Northeast during the war and made people realize “this is not what I signed up for,” Harvey said.

“Photographs from Antietam make it stunningly impossible for anyone associated with the New York art world to make romantic pictures of the war because they look like lies,” Harvey said.

Art also changed the rhetoric about war by depicting gruesome reality. Raw imagery shown to President Abraham Lincoln likely influenced the words he drafted for his Gettysburg Address, Harvey said.

“There's a realization that this is a war that left nobody unscathed,” she said. “As a result, as rich as you are, there is no insulation from the impact of the war.”

Landscape paintings reflected the mood of the nation. Artists depicted scenes of nature and weather to represent the war's destruction and impact. There are layers of coding in such paintings, Harvey said, as with Church's depiction of ice as Northern fortitude, an erupting volcano to represent slavery and the tropics to represent the South.

At the same time, Homer and Johnson addressed slavery and emancipation with scenes of ordinary people, including a slave family escaping to freedom on horseback and a slave man reading from the Bible.

In postwar America, Homer painted a scene of former slaves meeting with their former mistress, renegotiating their relationship to involve wages. “Homer is saying, ‘until this gets fixed, we're not done,'” Harvey said.

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