WASHINGTON — Many people saw it coming.
But perhaps none more so than the artists who lived through the American Civil War.
The war had a profound effect on this country, forever altering the social, economic, and political dynamics of the nation.
Painters and photographers who experienced the conflict, sometimes first hand, offered their own unique perspective of the war. They produced works prior, during, and after the epic chapter in American history.
Many of these artworks lie at the heart of an engaging exhibition on view here at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art through April 28. The exhibition moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York May 27-Sept. 2,
“The Civil War and American Art” presents 57 works by many celebrated and some not so familiar 19th century American artists. Organized by American Art senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey, the exhibit details how artists absorbed the war and responded to the moment.
Natural events provided powerful symbolism for artists as the country braced for war. Meteor sightings and reports shortly before the outbreak of hostilities became a particular harbinger for many people that war was on the way.
Meteor of 1860 by Frederic Edwin Church captures one such event that occurred over the eastern United States in July, 1860. Church’s work shows the meteor breaking up into a double fireball as it traverses his canvas.
Foreboding skies likewise became a metaphor in the paintings. In Twilight in the Catskills (1861) by Sanford Robinson Gifford, purple-grey clouds descend on a pale soft yellow sunset, resulting in a darkened landscape that becomes emblematic of a loss of grace.
The works on view are not historical, per se. The exhibit does not showcase sweeping scenes of famous battles or spotlight the war’s leading figures in portraits. Rather, the display illustrates the trauma of war primarily through genre and landscape scenery.
The war furnished artists an opportunity to witness, up close, the soldiering life. Winslow Homer emphasized the human side of warfare, focusing on individuals and tedium of Union camp life. A late-war Homer painting, The Bright Side (1865), shows four African-American teamsters relaxing by a tent, while a fifth man pokes his head out from the tent opening and makes eye contact with the viewer.
Conrad Wise Chapman observed the war from a different perspective — as a Confederate soldier and artist. A native Virginian, Chapman suffered a self-inflicted head wound at the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April, 1862. Through a family connection, Chapman was reassigned and eventually sent to defend Charleston and its harbor. There, Chapman received a creative directive from his commander, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, to generate sketches for a “Journal of the Siege of Charleston.”
Chapman painted 31 small pieces dedicated to the defense of Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, nine of which are featured here. The paintings conveyed a pride in the Confederacy, emphasizing Charleston and its Confederate defenders, often with airy luminosity.
When the artists did focus on the battlefield, the intimate nature of combat proved a fertile subject.
Homer based much of his battlefield work on his personal observations in the field. He captured the essence of warfare on a personal level in his famous and earliest painting from the war, Sharpshooter (1863). In it, a Union sharpshooter sits high in a tree, clutching a tree branch with his left hand and peering through the telescopic sight on the rifle balanced by his right arm.
Landscape master Albert Bierstadt fashioned his own take on the combat with “Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War” (1862). Bierstadt did not base the painting so much on first-hand experience as from a wartime photograph created by his brother, Edward Bierstadt.
A young medium at the time, photography played an important role in driving home war’s devastation to the public.
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.
IF YOU GO:
Location: The National Museum of American Art is at 8th and F streets NW, Washington, D.C.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Exhibition tour: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (May 27-Sept. 2)