The Civil War and American Art


of an Exhibition

by Kelsey McMillan

Published on April 07, 2013, Modified on April 11, 2013

  • Description:

    “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

    -Abraham Lincoln, 1963
    The Gettysburg Address

    It has been one hundred and fifty years since President Abraham Lincoln first spoke these words during the American Civil War. Today, they continue to be a powerful reminder of the suffering Americans fighting on both sides endured during the brutal war that threatened to tear the country apart. In the same speech, however, these words also speak to the enduring hope for peace, equality, and justice that this country was founded on, and that its citizens continue to strive for today.

    In the exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is prominently printed on one of the gallery walls. The rest of the exhibition is filled with seventy-five large and small paintings and photographs, all depicting various people and places that reference a country at war. As described in the beginning text upon entering the exhibition space, the artwork conflicts with the traditional “conventions of European history painting, which glamorized the hero on the battlefield.” Indeed, the artwork displayed in The Civil War and American Art renders a much more somber picture; there are no glorified war heroes depicted, and even the seemingly peaceful landscape paintings reflect a deeply unsettling and sinister tone the longer one looks at them. The overall feeling of the exhibition, then, is profoundly emotional. Adding to this sentiment is the realization that the inspiration behind the artwork stems from the artists’ first hand experiences during the Civil War, both as disillusioned citizens and soldiers on the battlefield.

    Once I entered the secluded exhibition space on the first floor, the frenetic energy of the rest of the museum seemed to disappear. Instead, a quiet and reflective atmosphere emerged as individuals and small groups slowly moved from one painting to the next over the carpeted floor. As I came around the corner to a wall of paintings in the first section of the exhibition space, the quote on the wall above them read, “Our painters have worked in the midst of great events, and therefore subjected to the most tumultuous, shattering, and ennobling experiences. –Eugene Benson, May 1866”. Even before looking at the paintings and photographs, this quote set the mood of the rest of the exhibition; warning me that what I am about to see is not a light hearted subject matter.

    The first painting I came across in the exhibition was Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, by the well-known artist, Winslow Homer. In it, a young soldier has just climbed over a protective embankment and looks out over a decimated battlefield towards the enemy on the other side. Presumably he has either lost his mind, or perhaps just tempting fate, but the faint puff of white smoke hovering over the enemy’s side suggests that the “invitation to shoot” has been accepted, and death will be soon for this figure. Adding to the surreal depiction are the boy’s fellow comrades who only casually glance at him as they sit in ‘safely’ below the embankment, including one man who continues to strum a banjo while blankly looking up at the central figure.

    I felt that the curator’s choice to introduce the exhibition with Homer’s Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg was a bold choice, in part because it puts the viewer right in the middle of the insanity of war with little prior scaffolding. It was a sound decision on the curator’s part, though, because not only did it encapsulate the central theme of the exhibition (the devastating impact the Civil War had on all Americans), but also it also immediately roped me in emotionally by playing on my macabre curiosity about war and death.

    Walking through the first section of the exhibition, I was struck by the tragic sense of irony in both the paintings themselves and the way they are displayed. For example, in one painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, soldiers gather together to pray at a base camp on a Sunday morning. Although this painting happens to depict Confederate soldiers praying, as I stood there gazing upon it, I realized it could just as easily have been Union soldiers. I suddenly felt a deep sense of sorrow as I imagined the two opposing sides praying to the same god for safety, as well as victory. It’s been more than a week since I first visited the exhibition, and this image continues to haunts me.

    One of the most emotionally raw parts of the exhibition for me was a smaller nook that featured Civil War photographs by Alexander Gardner and Timothy H. Sullivan. I had seen some of these photographs reproduced in textbooks before, but nothing compares to seeing the gruesome photos of dead soldiers strewn across a war-torn battlefield or in trenches in person. On the far end of the nook, the wall is covered with the text from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As I moved towards the speech, I was flanked on either side by the brutal photographs, and I felt engulfed by the tragedy of war. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way because as a text label points out, Abraham Lincoln came through Alexander Gardner’s studio to look at these same photographs only ten days before he spoke the Gettysburg Address. Surrounded by the photographs and reading Lincoln’s words, “…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” I could only conflicting emotions of hopelessness and hope running through the heads of so many Americans.

    As I walked further into the exhibition, I felt like I was moving deeper into the war. The exhibition seamlessly transitions from paintings of soldiers on and off the battlefield, to paintings of the families’ soldiers left behind, and paintings of enslaved and freed African Americans. In an interesting juxtaposition, two paintings by Eastman Johnson hang in close proximity to each other, yet they depict two radically different viewpoints. In The Girl I Left Behind Me, Johnson portrays a young wife standing on a windy hill waiting devotedly for her husband who is off at war. In contrast, A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves captures a moment where an African American man, woman, and child ride furiously though a field on horseback as they attempt to escape the south in hopes of a better future once they reach the Union line. These two paintings, along with all of the others in the exhibition, highlight the range of emotions and the momentous impact the war had on all Americans, not just soldiers.

    One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition was the incorporation of landscape paintings. When I think of landscape paintings, I typically think of quiet pastoral scenes that evoke a sense of peace. However, the represented landscape painters like Sanford Robinson Gifford and Frederick Edwin Church evoke a different feeling of tension and unease by including erupting volcanoes, blood-red sunsets, and dark and stormy skies into their scenic landscapes. As a text panel notes, “Damage to the landscape was an inevitable and disconcerting aspect of the war for a country whose identity was so closely tied to the land.” Certainly, the paintings convey a sense of fear and unease, and gazing upon them, I imagined each artist questioning how their country could possibly survive when its people and land were torn apart so violently.

    Luckily, I did not leave the exhibition feeling anxious and hopeless, though, as the final piece on display was a remarkable painting of Yosemite Valley by Albert Bierstadt. In it, golden rays of morning light peak out from behind a mountain and illuminate the Merced River and its vegetation-rich banks. Like many Americans who celebrate the beauty and splendor of this country, I was lucky enough to visit Yosemite National Park a couple of years ago and stand in the exact spot where Bierstadt’s painting looks out into the valley. Amazingly, standing in front his painting called to mind that same sense of admiration and awe as it did when I was in Yosemite two years earlier. As opposed to the other landscapes in the exhibition, the scene is calm and peaceful, and the morning light suggests hope and renewal. Indeed, this painting was completed three years after the Civil War ended. And just as it did one hundred and fifty years ago, this painting stands a reminder of the beauty and enduring strength of the United States that Abraham Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address.

    I often consider a good exhibition one that I continue to think about days and weeks later. The Civil War and American Art is certainly one of those exhibitions, which is why I am excited to hear that it will be coming to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in May of this year. Having been to the MET many times before, my hope is that those in charge of recreating the exhibit will be able to capture the intimate and reflective atmosphere that made the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum so powerful and unforgettable. Until then, I will eagerly await its arrival.

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