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Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era at Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837-1908), Twilight in the Wilderness, 1865. Oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 42 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund, funds given by Jeanne and Rex Sinquefeld and Eleanor Moore; and bequest of Friederike Gottfried, gift of Nellie Ballard White, gift of Whitaker Charitable Foundation, gift of Mrs. Willard Bartlett, gift of Howard Russell Butler Jr., Museum Purchase, gift of James F. Ballard, bequest of Mrs. Martha C. Burbach, bequest of Professor Halsey C. Ives, bequest of Helen K. Baer, and bequest of Mrs. Madge V. Goodrich, by exchange, 22.2007

MEMPHIS, TN.- The Dixon Gallery and Gardens invites you to explore newest exhibition, Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era, which opens July 5 and continues through October 4, 2009.

This landmark exhibition studies the poetics of American painting, sculpture, and graphic arts in the turbulent 1860’s. Featuring some of the most important American artists of the mid-nineteenth century, the exhibition reveals major shifts in ideas and attitudes that that Walt Whitman’s poetry and prose anticipated and that the Civil War hurried into effect. And though the “real” Civil War may not have made it in books, it will be fully realized at the Dixon through the arts of Bold, Cautious, True.

In mid-December 1862, as Civil War casualties and losses on both sides rose to an alarming number, Walt Whitman read in the New York Herald that his younger brother George was counted among the wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. With no indication of the severity of George’s wounds, like many anguished family members in the North and the South, Whitman set out on the near impossible task of finding a loved one among so many fallen soldiers. Walt Whitman was forty-three years old when he traveled to Fredericksburg and later scoured the makeshift military hospitals of Washington, D.C. in search of George, whose injuries, the poet thankfully reported to their mother, were not severe. But as he moved through corridor after corridor of wounded veterans, Whitman saw firsthand the horror of the many whose were.

Whitman was convinced he would be of no value as a soldier, but he was determined to aid the Union cause and what it stood for in his view: the abolition of slavery and the unity of one American people. Typical perhaps of one whose poetry extolled the democratic ideal through the celebration of individualism, Whitman served his country by serving the individual elements of it. The poet tended to his fellow man, his fellow American, the wounded foot soldier, as he clung to life or suffered and died in Washington hospitals. Whitman spent the entirety of 1863 and much of 1864 and 1865 clerking in government offices to pay his expenses, but his real duty was passing long nights among the wounded, changing bandages, performing small favors, writing letters home for the sick, maimed, and dying, distributing gifts, and, as much as possible, keeping hope alive amid so much unspeakable carnage and death.

By the time the Civil War had started in April 1861, Whitman had already produced one of the essential masterpieces of American literature, not that it had been recognized as such, not that his position as a leading American poet was firmly established. In 1855, he had issued Leaves of Grass—an enigmatic, imagistic landscape of careening prose-verse lines, a literary portrait (or self-portrait) of a young, earthy nation, and a tour-de-force of poetic innovation that was reviewed and thoughtfully considered in the press, but went virtually unnoticed by the public. Based largely on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s informal encouragement, Whitman hurried a second expanded edition of Leaves of Grass into publication in 1856, and after further conceptualization, more revision, and the addition of new poems, another edition appeared in 1860, the first to come out under the imprimatur of a commercial publisher.

Apart from short verses sent to newspapers in New York and Boston, Whitman published no poetry during the Civil War. However, he wrote prolifically and powerfully during the war years—dispatches for The New York Times, letters to his family and friends, new poems awaiting publication, and revisions of earlier work; he was always revising. In giving voice and vision to the unprecedented casualties of the Civil War, Whitman summoned powers of observation and expression that are startling in their poignancy, but also in their originality and deeply personal character. In an era defined by union and confederacy—one nation seeking to preserve its wholeness, another attempting to establish its own—Whitman’s writings salved and celebrated the spirit and integrity of individual identity. Amid staggering and formerly unimaginable death tolls, mob actions, riots, and massacres, and the expediency of Unknown Soldiers, unidentified remains, and mass graves, Whitman sang to individuality, asking of one dying soldier: “Leave me your pulses of rage…Let them identify you to the future in these songs.”

Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era is a study of the poetics of American painting, sculpture and graphic arts between 1861 and 1865. The exhibition and its accompanying publication look to Whitman’s themes, language, metaphors, and poetic structures as vehicles for divining meaning beyond the descriptive or the narrative in the work of such seminal American artists as David Gilmour Blythe, Frederic E. Church, Robert Scott Duncanson, Sanford R. Gifford, George P. A. Healy, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, John Frederick Kensett, Jervis McEntee, Enoch Wood Perry, John Quincy Adams Ward, Worthington Whittredge, and others. But the exhibition will also identify changing ideas and attitudes that reveal themselves in American art of the 1860s, major shifts that Whitman’s poetry and prose anticipate and that the Civil War hurried into effect.

There were contemporary American poets more frequently read than Whitman during the Civil War (and they were read by Whitman to wounded soldiers), versifiers who traded in sentiment and patriotic fervor. But no poet better captured the poetics of the war experience or more clearly identified the spaces between artistic intention and audience understanding, where the poetics of American art reside. In his poetry, prose, and even in his correspondence, Whitman articulated the profound social, cultural, ideological, and aesthetic upheaval that the violent rupture of the Civil War delivered to the feet of a nation.

The title “Bold, Cautious, True” is from Whitman’s “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods.” In the poem first published in 1865, the narrator discovers the grave of a fallen soldier and a tablet hastily nailed to a tree with the inscription: “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.” The words rush back to the narrator again and again well after he has left the war and the autumn woods of Virginia behind. They also aptly describe American art and artists as they experienced and expressed the Civil War in the 1860s.

David Gilmour Blythe | Frederic E. Church | Robert Scott Duncanson | Sanford R. Dixon Gallery and Gardens | George P. A. Healy | Winslow Homer | Eastman Johnson | John Frederick Kensett |

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