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Through The Prism Of Suffering

Smithsonian exhibit paints an enlightening portrait of Civil War-era art and photography

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum
O’Sullivan’s iconic 1863 photograph “A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg” showed the many casualties on the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa.

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.)

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.

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