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George Barnard accompanied William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops while they marched and torched their way through the Confederacy in 1864 and 1865. His resulting photos, conveying the destruction wrought on Charleston and Columbia, S.C., could stand in for any number of ancient ruins and remind the viewer of the timelessness of conflict.
What’s particularly notable is that the public saw some of the battlefield photographs during the war. “It’s the first conflict that was photographed start to finish. In New York people could see pictures of dead American soldiers, bloated out in the sun. There isn’t a lot of room to romanticize the conflict after seeing that,” Harvey said.
At first glance, many of the exhibit’s other works don’t seem to tackle the war head-on. Much of the show is dedicated to massive landscapes, many painted by Frederic Church, depicting scenes from nature. Approaching storms are a common theme, as are more oblique references to volcanoes, ice and activity of the cosmos.
“Nature metaphors were the way everyone was describing their reaction to the war,” said Harvey, citing Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, The New York Times and others. “John Brown was referred to as ‘the meteor of the war.’”
The final style in the exhibit, genre painting, underwent perhaps the most dramatic evolution as a result of the war. A form that Harvey describes as less than serious before the war (“drunk people, stupid people . . . it was about the foibles of humanity”), the landscape painters found in the Civil War the cause that prompted their move toward serious statements.
Artists such as Winslow Homer, who accompanied Union troops in battle off and on throughout the war, took to portraying empathetic images of soldiers and civilians in states of both wartime and peacetime. Homer’s 1864 painting “Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg” shows a Confederate soldier courageously standing above his comrades on a small hill, appearing to be inviting a Union bullet.
Eastman Johnson’s 1865 painting “Card Players, Fryeburg, Maine” shows a scene far away from the chaos of battle, where two Northerners are quietly producing “free sugar,” a protest against the cane sugar made on plantations.
“What happened as a result of the war was that a new generation of artists woke up, sobered up and started asking hard questions about what it means to tear the country apart,” Harvey said.