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Smithsonian exhibit shows how the Civil War affected American artists

By Chuck Myers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Published: Saturday, March 23 2013 1:55 p.m. MDT

"Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California" (1865) is by landscape master Albert Bierstadt.

Handout, Mct

WASHINGTON — Many people saw it coming.

But perhaps none more so than the artists who lived through the American Civil War.

The war had a profound effect on this country, forever altering the social, economic and political dynamics of the nation.

Painters and photographers who experienced the conflict, sometimes first hand, offered their own unique perspective of the war. They produced works prior, during and after the epic chapter in American history.

Many of these art works lie at the heart of an engaging exhibition on view here at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art through April 28.

"The Civil War and American Art" presents 57 works by many celebrated and some not so familiar 19th century American artists. Organized by American Art Senior Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey, the exhibit details how artists absorbed the war and responded to the moment.

Natural events provided powerful symbolism for artists as the country braced for war. Meteor sightings and reports shortly before the outbreak of hostilities became a particular harbinger for many people that war was on the way.

"Meteor of 1860" by Frederic Edwin Church captures one such event that occurred over the eastern United States in July 1860. Church's work shows the meteor breaking up into a double fireball as it traverses his canvas.

Foreboding skies likewise became a metaphor in the paintings. In "Twilight in the Catskills" (1861) by Sanford Robinson Gifford, purple-grey clouds descend on a pale soft yellow sunset, resulting in a darkened landscape that becomes emblematic of a loss of grace.

The works on view are not historical, per se. The exhibit does not showcase sweeping scenes of famous battles or spotlight the war's leading figures in portraits. Rather, the display illustrates the trauma of war primarily through genre and landscape scenery.

The war furnished artists an opportunity to witness, up close, the soldiering life. Winslow Homer emphasized the human side of warfare, focusing on individuals and tedium of Union camp life. A late-war Homer painting, "The Bright Side" (1865), shows four African-American teamsters relaxing by a tent, while a fifth man pokes his head out from the tent opening and makes eye contact with the viewer.

Conrad Wise Chapman observed the war from a different perspective — as a Confederate soldier and artist. A native Virginian, Chapman suffered a self-inflicted head wound at the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April 1862. Through a family connection, Chapman was reassigned and eventually sent to defend Charleston and its harbor. There, Chapman received a creative directive from his commander, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, to generate sketches for a "Journal of the Siege of Charleston."

Chapman painted 31 small pieces dedicated to the defense of Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, nine of which are featured here. The paintings conveyed a pride in the Confederacy, emphasizing Charleston and its Confederate defenders, often with airy luminosity.

When the artists did focus on the battlefield, the intimate nature of combat proved a fertile subject.

Homer based much of his battlefield work on his personal observations in the field. He captured the essence of warfare on a personal level in his famous and earliest painting from the war, "Sharpshooter" (1863). In it, a Union sharpshooter sits high in a tree, clutching a tree branch with his left hand and peering through the telescopic sight on the rifle balanced by his right arm.

Landscape master Albert Bierstadt fashioned his own take on the combat with "Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War" (1862). Bierstadt did not base the painting so much on first-hand experience as from a wartime photograph created by his brother, Edward Bierstadt.

A young medium at the time, photography played an important role in driving home war's devastation to the public.

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