Works in Smithsonian show gritty realism, belie romantic notions
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- North Buffalo man charged with distributing child porn
- West Mifflin Area to sue for tuition reimbursement
- Armstrong schools put television programming online
- Bodies of Kochu, Gray found in Ohio River in West Virginia
- Penguins’ protracted slump continues with 5-2 loss at Carolina
- Police end standoff with New Kensington man
- European carriers lack 2-person cockpit rule in place in U.S.
- Pittsburgh angles to keep Heinz headquarters in merger
- Narduzzi set to begin more critical evaluations during Pitt football spring drills
- Letters show Ford City had chance at cutting debt by more than $450K
- Energy Department OKs loan of $259M to Alcoa to promote clean energy