Share This Article

The Civil War and American Art is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., through April 28, 2013. There are 75 works in all: 57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs. A scholarly catalogue written by Eleanor Harvey is available for purchase. The exhibit next travels to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it will remain on view until September 2, 2013.

If ever an art exhibition relied on words as much as images, it’s this one. It might not be obvious at first, for instance, why Albert Bierstadt’s larger-than-life landscape Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California—which contains not a single soldier, tent or cannon—would be included in an exhibition titled “The Civil War and American Art.” The same goes for Eastman Johnson’s The Old Mount Vernon, an image of George Washington’s estate painted before the war began. Explanatory panels and accompanying literature reveal, however, that these works aren’t necessarily meant to document what the war looked like, but how it was experienced, in real time, by American artists who lived through it. As exhibition organizer Eleanor Harvey, a senior curator with the museum, points out, the display invites viewers to reexamine their views of the conflict: “In the wake of 9/11, look at what one day did to our country,” she says. “The Civil War was supposed to last for a single afternoon, and yet it was four solid years of war. What does that do to you as a country?”

According to the Smithsonian Institution, this is the only major sesquicentennial exhibition examining how artists reflected the anxiety and tragedy of the war period—before, during and after the conflict—in their work. The result is an intellectually rigorous and visually arresting collection, including such giants as Winslow Homer, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford, as well as photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan.

No typical Civil War exhibit would open with a late-war shot of a Confederate die-hard; this one starts with Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, Winslow Homer’s depiction of a Confederate sharpshooter goading the enemy. The painting is all provocation: Just as the sharpshooter issues his challenge, this work signals that our expectations are about to be challenged.

Several of the works are highly metaphorical. Sanford Gifford’s Twilight in the Catskills and Martin Johnson Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm use a charred, desolate landscape and darkening sky, respectively, to illustrate rising tension about the impending conflict. Church’s Meteor of 1860 references a real meteor that was visible that year, but also serves as a reminder of the shocking rise of John Brown, whom Walt Whitman and Herman Melville both compared to a meteor.

One of the exhibit’s oddest, yet most beautiful, images is Church’s The Icebergs, which depicts rusty ship remnants stuck in the ice up North. We learn, however, that the painting debuted less than two weeks after the start of the war, prompting Church to change its name briefly to The North. He donated the proceeds from the exhibition to the Union cause.

Particularly welcome here are depictions of African Americans. The Old Mount Vernon, for instance, offers an unusual side view of George Washington’s home, including a glimpse of the slave quarters and outbuildings behind the main house. Also given a prominent spot in the exhibit is Johnson’s fascinating Negro Life at the South. What seems to be a jovial moment in a slave quarters’ yard reveals subtexts that underline the truth about slavery. A cat slinks inside an open window, within view of the slave master’s bedroom. Another window reveals a dark-skinned woman holding a lighter-skinned child, no doubt the product of an illicit union.

The show ends with Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, painted in 1865. By this point visitors fully understand that this isn’t just a striking painting of the American continent, it’s the landscape equivalent of Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom”—a land of peace, potential and wonder, unspoiled by the devastating conflict that the painter and his fellow Americans had just endured.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.