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War and its horrors have long been a powerful muse for some of history’s most influential painters and photographers. One needs only to think of Pablo Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece “Guernica,” with its nightmarish depiction of the destruction of the titular Basque town by German bombers, or Henri Huet’s daring Vietnam War frames for an instant reminder of war’s iconic imagery.
But while crowds still flock to Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum for a glimpse of “Guernica,” a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is aiming to shed light on the artists who worked during another seismic conflict: the American Civil War.
The exhibit, “The Civil War and American Art,” posits that the period had an underappreciated influence on painting and photography and gave dramatic insights into the psyche of the country.
“There’s this sense that everything you trusted, everything you believed in has now been called into question,” said Eleanor Harvey, the exhibit’s curator. “The paintings and photos in the exhibition speak to a country that knows it’s at a crossroads. It just doesn’t necessarily know what the answer is.”
(The building that houses the museum has its own history with the war: It was a center for Union troops defending Washington and housed wounded soldiers after First Manassas in the summer of 1861, in addition to serving as the venue for Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural ball.)
Harvey, who admits she was not much of a Civil War buff before the project, came up with the idea for the exhibit partly to coincide with the ongoing 150th anniversary of the war as well as to understand why students of American art had glossed over the period for so long.
“In most of American art history, the Civil War simply doesn’t show up. Ninety-odd percent of American artists at the time did not paint episodes from the war, and as a result, if you look at works of American art scholarship, the Civil War may show up in the index, or it may not,” she said.
Those artists who did take on the war, though, often had incisive things to say.
The exhibit tells its story through 78 paintings and photographs. It focuses on three art forms: landscape painting, genre painting (depictions of people and everyday life) and photography, and includes a number of works dating from a few years both before and after the war.Hard Questions
The photography, a relatively new medium at the time, is some of the most affecting work.
Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s 1863 “A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg” simply shows a field strewn with bodies, those in the foreground in clear focus. (Monday was the 149th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.)