When we think about the Civil War, we likely think of the major places and players: Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh; President Lincoln, General Lee, the Union, the Confederacy. To associate art with the conflict that raged across the North and South from 1861 to 1865 seems unusual, but that is what The Civil War and American Art, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has asked us to do.
Consider that some of the period's foremost artists were influenced by the War Between the States. Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt, for example, are two American artists who, during this time, became known for their landscape paintings, some of which contained strong symbolic allusions to the war. This must-see exhibit of 75 works - 57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs - puts landscape paintings by Homer, Bierstadt, and some of their contemporaries into context. The Civil War and American Art also looks at the paintings that were produced by battlefield artists on both sides of the war; the grim realities of battle, represented in vintage photographs of the carnage at Antietam and Gettysburg; and issues of slavery and reconstruction.
Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt
The best-known artist featured in The Civil War and American Art is Winslow Homer, who is represented in this exhibit with 13 paintings. Although the 19th century artist is remembered for his New England scenes, particularly paintings inspired by coastal Maine, Homer also spent time with Union soldiers, capturing them at work and at rest, and as they traveled to battle sites behind enemy lines. Prisoners from the Front depicts a civilized scene of Union soldiers taking Confederate prisoners of war. The Bright Side, a portrait of black teamsters resting by their encampment, is another poignant Homer work.
There is also Bierstadt, whose paintings bookend the show. His Guerrilla Warfare, completed in 1862, shows Union soldiers awaiting their Confederate prey while Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, an enormous canvas, painted in 1865, depicts the Western landscapes for which Bierstadt is known. From the start of the War to a new beginning for America, Bierstadt's paintings tell a story, as do the artworks that hang in between his works.
Beyond Homer and Bierstadt, most paintings in the exhibit come from around a half-dozen artists, including Sanford Robinson Gifford, Conrad Wise Chapman, Frederic Edwin Church, and Eastman Johnson.
Gifford's Twilight in the Catskills, Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment, Arlington Heights, Virginia, and Fort Federal Hill at Sunset, Baltimore, are magnificent, orange-hued canvases that hint at burnt landscapes and simmering tensions present as the War raged.
Conrad Wise Chapman, the only known artist to have painted as he served in the Confederate Army, contributes scenes of daily activity along Charleston Harbor.
Church painted landscapes full of symbolism. Like Bierstadt, Church is represented at the beginning and the end of the show. His small-scale Our Banner in the Sky from 1861 depicts the Union flag in the orange and red clouds of dusk. Later, some of Church's large canvases, such as Rainy Season in the Tropics signify a new dawn. Still, there is an uneasiness in many of Church's landscapes, particularly in Cotopaxi, an 1862 portrait of an erupting Ecuadorian volcano, said to symbolize the fury over the central issue of slavery, referred to as a "moral volcano" by Frederick Douglass in an 1861 speech.
While Church tackled the issue of slavery through landscape painting, Eastman Johnson created several memorable portraits of slave life. His Negro Life at the South from 1859 - two years before the beginning of the Civil War - is a frank commentary on the intermingling of races on plantations. A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, portrays a heroic slave escape on horseback and leaves no doubt that Johnson is sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause. Johnson has a few other notable paintings of Civil War life, including the wistful and windswept The Girl I Left Behind Me.
Two other must-see paintings in The Civil War and American Art are Julian Scott's Surrender of a Confederate Solider and the Thomas Moran's Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia.
Civil War Photography
Eighteen vintage photographs are on view at this show; most of them are grim. The most fascinating photographs come from Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. O'Sullivan, who captured scenes of Antietam and Gettysburg, respectively, just days after those battles were fought. A photograph of President Lincoln meeting with General McClellan at Gettysburg is also on view.
The Civil War and American Art - Location and Dates