At War With Art
Reconstruction still puzzles many Americans. The art journalist Tyler Green, reviewing the book published with the exhibition, says it “deserves to win awards in two disciplines: Art history and American history.” Like Green and Harvey, many Americans never learned in school what Reconstruction was really about. Even today, some of our K–12 history textbooks maintain the confusion. The American Journey, for example, begins:
The war had left the South with enormous problems. Most of the major fighting had taken place in the South. Towns and cities were in ruin, plantations burned, and roads, bridges, and railroads destroyed….
People in all parts of the nation agreed that the devastated Southern economy and society needed rebuilding. They disagreed bitterly, however, over how to accomplish this. This period of rebuilding is called Reconstruction. This term also refers to the various plans for accomplishing the rebuilding.
This chapter is allegedly by James McPherson, our foremost Civil War historian, but McPherson would never have written that passage and allowed such a mistake to stand.
If Harvey had gotten the history of Reconstruction right, the meaning of the art from that period on display in the exhibition would have resonated more clearly. In addition to the political reconstruction of Southern state governments, with the attendant societal transformation as Confederate leaders were disfranchised and African-Americans were enfranchised, Reconstruction was also an ideological movement. Across the entire country, many white people came to favor black voting and even equal rights. Paintings by Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer, including some in this exhibit, show this equal treatment of African-Americans. The curator does recognize that the place of African-Americans was the galvanizing issue behind secession and the Civil War. But she cannot effectively tie Johnson’s and Homer’s works to Reconstruction as an ideology, because she thinks Reconstruction refers mainly to physically rebuilding the South.
Instead of perceiving Reconstruction in Johnson’s pictures of African-Americans, she sees it in his 1872 portrait of a white girl with windswept hair, The Girl I Left Behind Me, calling it “a compelling, if complicated, commentary on Reconstruction-era America.” “Complicated,” indeed: Johnson first titled it The Foggy Day, then Young Maidenhood, because it had nothing to do with Reconstruction. The girl wears a ring, possibly a wedding ring, which prompts Harvey to ask: “Is Johnson referring to her personal life or to the Union as the nation?” So an artist cannot picture a ring during or even well after the war and have it just be a ring! Such commentary reminds me of how, back when I was a lad, my Presbyterian Bible “explained” the sex passages in the Old Testament’s “Song of Solomon” as being about “Christ’s love for his church.”
Despite all this bad history, there are two reasons the exhibition is worth seeing. First, there is some gorgeous art. The Hudson River School is on beautiful display, including four large landscapes by Church: The Icebergs, Cotopaxi, Aurora Borealis and Rainy Season in the Tropics. The wall text is absurd. Cotopaxi depicts a volcano in Ecuador. “Although Cotopaxi is not specifically about the Civil War, it is suffused with it,” Harvey pontificates. “Race slavery was North America’s volcano, a simmering force, hidden and suppressed, but waiting to erupt explosively.” Too many visitors to art museums spend more time reading the wall texts than looking at the works on display; this a reminder of why it’s essential to look at the art.
The second reason for seeing the exhibition is that Harvey has done a good job of assembling nineteenth-century paintings that treat race. She rightly notes that service in the US armed forces brought many white Americans into contact with African-Americans for the first time. Certainly Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson came to know African-Americans during the war, and the results are well represented here.
So, go. Look. Think. But don’t read anything on the wall. Instead, go home and read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction. That way, you’ll get good art and good history.