Smithsonian exhibit shows how the Civil War affected American artists
Photographs of the dead on the battlefields at Antietam, Md., by Alexander Gardner include the only photo of President Abraham Lincoln in the show, taken during his meeting with Gen. George McClellan at Antietam, in September 1862. Nearby, photographer John Reekie's famous "A Burial Party, Cold Harbor" (1865) hangs across from "A Harvest of Death" (1863), a ghastly scene of dead Confederates taken by photographer Timothy O'Sullivan after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army retreated from Gettysburg.
Another photographer, George Barnard, chronicled the war's impact on the Deep South. Barnard honed his photographic chops making carte-de-visite portrait images in Mathew Brady's New York City studio, and later landed a job working for the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee. After Union forces under Gen. William T. Sherman captured Atlanta in September 1864, Barnard joined Sherman's army for its march to the sea. A master of depth of field, Barnard skillfully recorded the destruction the Union army wrought on towns and cities in Georgia and South Carolina. In his poignant "Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina" (1865), Barnard captured a lone man, sitting amid a devastated urban landscape.
Landscape destruction caused by the war similarly found its way into paintings. In some instances, however, this type of landscape imagery wasn't caused by armies tearing up the terrain.
"The Iron Mine" (c. 1862), by Homer Doge Martin, works just as well as a post-war commentary about the cost of war. The scene surrounding the mine near Port Henry, N.Y., reveals a barren hillside devoid of human activity, scarred by a mining operation that slopes down to the shore of Lake Champlain.
Paintings detailing life on the home front often provide some of the most gripping visual narratives in the show — especially those involving slave life.
"Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia" (1862) by Thomas Moran depicts a slave family — a father, mother and child — running in terror through a verdant, yet rotting swamp. The slave father clutches a knife dripping with blood from a hound, while the woman clutches an infant child. The trio slogs through torpid water, pursued by more bounding hounds and slave trackers pressing forward from forest shadows.
Eastman Johnson produced some of the most compelling imagery about slavery. Often instilled with symbolism, his paintings typically invite a range of interpretations.
An African-American family of four makes a break for Union lines and freedom in Johnson's celebrated "A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slave, March 2, 1962." The four ride a single horse, with the father holding his son in his lap, and the mother, behind him, clutching an infant. The woman looks back, perhaps watching for pursuers, or may be taking one last glance at the enslavement life they've left behind.
After the war, some artists reflected on how the conflict affected the lives of those who lived through it. In one of the larger Homer paintings on display, "The Cotton Pickers" (1876), a pair of African-American women exits a cotton field. One young woman looks down, lost in thought, surrounded by cotton and seemingly trapped in time. The other woman gazes forward, as if determined to find a new life beyond the drudgery of the field.
Apprehension about the future and a renewal of the American spirit also found its way in art during the post-war period.
Church reflected on the national crisis in his "Aurora Borealis" (1865), created in the last year of the war. Colorful ribbons of aurora light arch in the night sky in the grand piece, with a ship, the USS United States, trapped below in an ice pack. The aurora was considered a warning from heaven, and foretold of dark days ahead. But nearby, his "Rainy Season in the Tropics" (1866) communicates a more redemptive message, as a double rainbow bends over a luminous tropical setting that includes a tiny figure and a donkey making their safe passage toward salvation, represented by distant white city.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bierstadt's monumental rendition of Yosemite Valley in 1865 invokes a feeling of rejuvenation and a look westward toward a better future. Also a sense that the Civil War was fading into the rear view of the American experience.
The Civil War and American Art
Location: The National Museum of American Art is located at 8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Exhibition catalog: "The Civil War and American Art" by Eleanor Jones Harvey, 317 pp., co-published with Yale University Press
Exhibition tour: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (May 27-Sept. 2)
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