At War With Art

At War With Art

The Smithsonian’s show on the Civil War and American Art expresses a deep unease about the relationship between between art and history.


“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.

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.

* * *

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. 

In her comments on Homer Dodge Martin’s The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York (circa 1862), Harvey misreads two works at once: “The mine shaft openings resemble bullet wounds, and the rusted tailings of iron ore stain the slopes like dried blood. This scarred landscape subtly recalls Gardner’s battlefield photographs of fallen soldiers.” Well, no, it doesn’t. Alexander Gardner’s photographs show few bullet wounds, no colors (of course), and no slopes with blood running down. The comparison is solely in the mind of the curator. No one who knew Martin claimed that he was alluding to the Civil War, so far as I can tell. 

More misleading still is the wall text for Frederic Edwin Church’s Aurora Borealis (1865):

Under a dark Arctic sky, polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes’s ship, the SS United States, lies frozen in the pack ice…. The auroras above erupt in a cascade of eerie lights. Throughout the war, auroras were solidly associated with apocalyptic warnings about the conflict. As the ice grips Hayes’s ship, and by proxy the nation, the auroras snake across the sky like a grim warning from God, a bleak foreshadowing of doom.

Only a curator who had never seen the northern lights would imagine that they “snake.” They don’t. The S-curve is the bottom of a curtain that descends or appears but does not snake. An impressive display appeared over the northern United States on December 23, 1864, but it occasioned few “grim warnings” or “foreshadowings of doom.” Nor would any have been appropriate, because Sherman had taken Atlanta in early September 1864, leading to Lincoln’s re-election in November. For that matter, the boat’s situation was not grim, either. Hayes expected it to be “gripped,” but after the ice loosened, he brought it back to the United States in triumph.

According to the exhibition, no subject, however distant, remained untouched by the war. In 1864, the United States bought Yosemite and turned it into a park. Albert Bierstadt hastened to the valley, which he called “the most magnificent place I was ever in,” and made numerous paintings of it. On exhibit is Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California. According to the wall text, “Bierstadt’s views of Yosemite held out the promise of a place where all Americans could slough off the trauma of war and sectarian strife, a place of renewal and healing.” The book takes the interpretation even further: “Bierstadt’s painting represented a wartime yearning for sanctuary. But what appears to be the promise of redemption is in fact mostly an escape—not a solution to the nation’s problems.” Surely this is the first time in history that Yosemite Valley has been criticized for not being “a solution to the nation’s problems,” and surely Bierstadt never thought it might be when he painted it. Interpretations like these reflect a deep unease about the ambiguous relationship between history and art. 

* * *

When the exhibit turns from the Civil War to Reconstruction, its history goes completely off the rails. According to the big piece of wall text that introduces the postwar gallery, “The ensuing bitterness that permeated Reconstruction in the South came from dual causes—the realization that the North quickly went back to business as usual, having sustained little damage, while Federal promises to rebuild the South were more often broken than fulfilled.” Under the title “The Unraveling of Reconstruction,” the book states:

Reconstruction began as a well-intended effort to repair the obvious damage across the South as each state reentered the Union. It was an overwhelming task under ideal circumstances. Following Lincoln’s assassination, that effort soon faltered, beset by corrupt politicians, well-meaning but inept administrations, speculators, and very little centralized management for programs.

This exhibition is hardly alone in misconstruing Reconstruction as reconstruction, but it’s embarrassing to find such an elementary blunder in print at a national museum. To be sure, the war had ruined parts of the South. But Reconstruction had nothing to do with rebuilding this “obvious damage.” Reconstruction was a political process: the seceded states had to be reconstituted politically to be readmitted to the Union. How to do this occupied President Andrew Johnson and the Republican-dominated Congress from 1865 until Johnson left office in 1869; Ulysses Grant then oversaw Reconstruction until it ended in March of 1877.

Comparing Georgia and Florida provides an easy way to grasp the matter. The Civil War raged across Georgia for the better part of two years, including General Sherman’s burning of Atlanta. In Georgia, Reconstruction lasted until October 1871—six years. Florida escaped the Civil War almost completely unscathed, but Reconstruction there lasted until 1877—eleven years. Again, Reconstruction was not about physical reconstruction, but about race: would African-Americans be allowed to share power? In less than one year in just one state—Louisiana—white Democrats killed more than 1,000 people over this issue. I know of no murders committed over “centralized management” or any other matter connected with rebuilding.

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.

Nation contributing editor and blogger Jon Wiener points out some of the historical errors in a
contemporary work of cinematic art in “The Trouble With Steven Spielberg’s
Lincoln” (Nov. 26).

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