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At War With Art | The Nation

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At War With Art

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“The Civil War and American Art,” the current exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. After it closes in late April, the show will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for most of the rest of 2013. To complement the show, the Smithsonian has published, in conjunction with Yale University Press, a beautiful companion volume that includes many images not on display in the galleries and several chapters of commentary. The exhibit and book are an occasion not only to showcase some fascinating art, but also to clear up the misconceptions that many Americans still hold about the period. Unfortunately, both squander that opportunity.

About the Author

James W. Loewen
James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and the editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.

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Unlike, say, Emanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, which depicts exactly what its title describes, few of the works in “The Civil War and American Art” portray the war directly. The curator, Eleanor Jones Harvey, explains this by claiming that photography, only recently invented, carried “the gruesome burden” of documenting the war’s carnage and destruction. As a result, artists shied away from direct representations of the war. But photography in the 1860s could not capture the action of war. Photographers could shoot posed generals, but because exposure times required still subjects, they could not photograph battles, only their aftermath—mostly corpses. Mathew Brady’s famous 1862 New York City exhibit was titled “The Dead of Antietam,” not “The Battle of Antietam.”

To make Harvey’s claim stick, the exhibition simply omits most art that did portray the war itself. Two blocks from the Smithsonian is the National Building Museum, formerly the Pension Building. All the way around its exterior, on a frieze above the first floor, march Civil War soldiers, cavalry, artillery and supply trains. In front of the Capitol, the Grant Memorial shows the carnage of war viscerally. As early as 1862, the sculptor John Rogers offered mass-produced small sculptures of battlefield scenes like Sharp Shooters. All are missing from “The Civil War and American Art.” 

Also missing are the mass-produced images about the conflict—lithographs from Currier and Ives, woodcuts from Leslie’s Illustrated and Harper’s Weekly, and editorial cartoons of all kinds, including by the master, Thomas Nast. The exhibition includes portraits and landscapes by Winslow Homer but not his battle scenes for Harper’s; those would interfere with the claim that artists did not depict the war itself. Robert Knox Sneden’s drawings and watercolors of Andersonville Prison and other Civil War scenes, including naval engagements, make no appearance. Neither does folk art. 

Even if the exhibition had been titled “The Civil War and American Painting,” there still would be a problem. Harvey’s claim that because photography was better at capturing the “grim reality” of war, “American artists could not depict the conflict with the conventions of European history painting” simply isn’t true. Neither European history painters nor Americans felt such a constraint. Americans hired Europeans to produce enormous “cycloramas”—oil paintings on canvas more than 300 feet long, mounted in circles surrounding their audiences—of the battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Atlanta. They attracted thousands of tourists; the cycloramas in Gettysburg and Atlanta still do. Their popularity undercuts the exhibit’s claim that war photographs drove historical paintings out of vogue. American artists like Peter Rothermel also painted the war itself, but this exhibit simply leaves them out. Two paintings of the Battle of Antietam by James Hope do make it into the book, but not onto the walls.

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After omitting art that portrays the Civil War, Harvey concludes there was little art portraying the Civil War. Not to worry, though: the exhibition’s title is “The Civil War and American Art,” not “in American Art.” The exhibit’s organizing principle is: “Genre and landscape painting captured the transformative impact of the war, not traditional history painting.” This insight proves not so much a conclusion as a prejudice. It leads Harvey to imagine traces of the Civil War in paintings of landscapes far removed from the conflict: if a painting shows a thunderstorm over Lake George, that signifies the approaching war; if another shows a rainbow over a tropical landscape, that’s because the artist, affected by the conflict, was seeking to transcend it. The exhibit’s wall text for Frederic Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics quotes a sentence from The New York Times in 1865, as the war ended: “No more deluge of blood…. The whole heavens were spanned with the rainbow of promise.” So Church really was painting the war, not a rainbow. In fact, Church had gone to Ecuador and Colombia in 1853 and 1857, well before the conflict was even envisioned. Sketches made then led to Rainy Season in the Tropics in 1866, complete with that rainbow. He traveled to the tropics—and later to the Arctic—in response to the polymath Alexander von Humboldt, who implored artists to paint the very ends of the earth.

Unfortunately, seeing war in artworks that aren’t about the war leads to shaky commentaries on the art. Harvey finds a “poignant connection” between Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Coming Storm (1863) and “the nation’s grief.” Inspection of the painting, however, reveals that it is actually more about light than darkness. Brightness shines through in the center, where the clouds part, lighting up a boulder and some maple trees in autumn. (Gifford retouched and redated the painting in 1880, and may have added more light; art historians aren’t sure.) It cannot presage the gloom of war. 

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