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The 150th anniversary of our greatest conflict implores us to take another look

Back in February, the London-based Art Newspaper, the most important journal in the museum world, published a front-page article bemoaning the shocking absence of American art exhibitions commemorating the Civil War sesquicentennial. The authors even quoted me speculating that perhaps we remain inhibited about remembering the war because it continues to divide us.

Our Heaven Born Banner was adapted from a Frederick Church oil, painted in 1861 after the firing on Fort Sumter. Image courtesy of Library of CongressThe quote—taken out of context, of course—was embarrassing enough. But more to the point, the entire article proved wildly inaccurate. Not only are museums, libraries and historical societies around the country planning major exhibitions of Civil War images, they seem to be ratcheting up for the war’s 150th with unprecedented verve.

To name but a few examples: The Library of Congress has opened “The Last Full Measure,” a show of Civil War photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection. In Hartford, the Connecticut Historical Society is showing “Picturing the Civil War,” an ex­hi­bition of lithographs by that city’s Kellogg Brothers. The National Portrait Gallery plans a series of shows from its vast holdings, too. The National Archives has begun a rotation of exhibitions. The New York State Library in Albany is gearing up for a show. Lincoln Memorial Uni­versity in Harrogate, Tenn., has plans for a display.

In 2013, my own Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will mount (following an initial run at the Smith­sonian National Art Museum) the big­gest exhibition, “The Civil War and American Art.” The Met will also hang a show of treasures from its vast collection of photographs, augmented in recent years by the acquisition of the fabled Gilman Collection.

In short, whatever the Art Newspaper and I may have believed just a few months ago, the shows must go on—and will. Civil War art and photography will be on view as never before over the next four years, re-installed, re-inter­preted and re-visited by thousands of Americans seeking new answers to un­ending questions: What divided us? Did any of it make sense? How best can we envision the battles and leaders? The best answer: not through words alone, but through pictures, too. In their day, Civil War images did not merely illustrate written accounts of the conflict. They vivified the experiences, exerting immense influence on the making and breaking of reputations, the durability of causes won and lost, and the cadence of national memory itself.

No wonder. The war lured the best young talent in the nation to the battlefield. Responding to the first call for troops, New York painter Sanford Gifford marched south with the 7th Regi­ment and produced pellucid can­vases of its Virginia encampments. William D. Washington rode off to record the Confederate march to its own destiny. Conrad Wise Chapman, injured on land, was fortuitously sent to the waterfront—to Charleston Harbor, to be precise—where he produced a magnificent portfolio of studies of the 1863 siege, under the patronage of P.G.T. Beauregard. And once a Boston lithographer dispatched Winslow Homer to the front to draft comic drawings of raw Union recruits, the artist was hooked—he began “collecting material for future greatness,” his mother said proudly—and for decades thereafter produced some of the most vivid and heartbreaking paintings of the war’s impact on men and women, white and black.

The prevalence of so-called “battlefield” art is perhaps exaggerated. That is, most artists knew better than to bury their heads in their sketchbooks while shells and Minié balls whizzed around them. But they were sufficiently trained to record the scenes from memory promptly enough, and their interpretations equal anything produced in print to describe the majesty and the brutality of these engagements.

Photographers were the true artist-pioneers of this era. Never before was a conflict so well documented by this relatively new art form. Again, lensmen did not often take pictures of action as it perilously raged. But Alexander Gardner’s horrifying portraits of the dead littering the battlefield of Antietam were enough to galvanize distant and jaded New York by bringing home with painful acuity the horrors this modern conflict unleashed.

In the North, a romanticized painting of Sheridan astride Rienzi on his famous ride at Winchester, Va., created such a sensation it immortalized “Little Phil” forever. Another, showing a plantation mistress presiding over the burial of a Confederate officer, unleashed such a torrent of emotion that displays usually inspired visitors to fill buckets stra­tegically placed nearby with money and jewelry earmarked for war widows and orphans. Images move ever so rapidly today across fickle little screens on our personal devices. Imagine a time in which images were riveting, precious, treasured, even reverenced—permanent enough to qualify as icons.

Perhaps nothing ever revealed the ravages of war more poignantly than the rapidly aging face of Abraham Lincoln, as captured by Gardner and Mathew Brady from 1861-65. In just four years Lincoln went from a young to a prematurely old man, looking ancient and haggard posing for his last studio images just days before his 56th and final birthday. Yet even as he aged before the nation’s eyes, a touchstone for national suffering, Lincoln never shunned the unforgiving camera. He made himself constantly available. He compelled his contemporaries to look, to see their own suffering in his fading countenance.

Over the next four years, look afresh—at Lincoln’s tragic deterioration, Lee’s proud dignity, Davis’ imperious determination. Re-explore the hardships of camp life and the agonizing aftershocks of battle. View antiquated equestrian portraits and prescient celebrations of the machinery and technology of modern war. Discover tough modern views of hand-to-hand combat so ugly in their details that they become beautiful in the aggregate. And go as far as it takes to see the originals—not merely the thumbnail reproductions in books and magazines, but the ornately framed canvases that once held pride of place in soldier hospitals, historical societies and state capitols. These action scenes and portraits held audiences spellbound for generations. At their best, they embody what George McClellan once called “perfect representations of Army Life.”

Even that reluctant general’s eyes had seen the glory—through the art of war. So must ours.

Harold Holzer is senior vice president for external affairs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more Civil War art, see The war on canvas, p. 44.