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Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum considers how Civil War changed American art
Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, ca. 1862-63. Oil on board, 21 1/2 x 26 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, The Paul Mellon Collection, 85.644. Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Art.

NEW YORK, NY.- Because the American Civil War threatened both the founding principles and the viability of the republic, the nation’s entire population was deeply affected by the fact of the conflict and its outcome. The major loan exhibition The Civil War and American Art, which will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning May 27, will consider how American artists responded to the Civil War and its aftermath. Landscapes and genre scenes—more than traditional history paintings—captured the war’s impact on the American psyche. The exhibition traces the trajectory of the conflict: unease as war became inevitable, optimism that a single battle might end the struggle, growing realization that fighting would be prolonged, enthusiasm and worries alike surrounding emancipation, and concerns about how to reunify the nation after a period of grievous division. The exhibition proposes significant new readings of many familiar masterworks—some 60 paintings and 18 photographs created between 1852 and 1877—including landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, paintings of life on the battlefront and the home front by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, and photographs by Timothy H. O’Sullivan and George N. Barnard.

It was organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Anschutz Foundation; Ludmila and Conrad Cafritz; Christie’s; Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins; Tania and Tom Evans; Norma Lee and Morton Funger; Dorothy Tapper Goldman; Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment; Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts; Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation; Joffa and Bill Kerr; Thelma and Melvin Lenkin; Henry Luce Foundation; Paula and Peter Lunder; Margery and Edgar Masinter; Barbro and Bernard Osher; Walter and Lucille Rubin Foundation; Patricia Rubin and Ted Slavin; and Holly and Nick Ruffin. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, “Treasures to Go.”

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum, commented: “Generally, it has fallen to history museums to organize exhibitions about wars. But the works of art in this exhibition—which include some of the greatest examples of their era—were not intended to document the war. Rather, they chronicle how genre painters, landscape painters, and photographers responded to the coming of the war, the fact of the war, and its aftermath, and how the war changed American art.”

The presentation at the Metropolitan coincides with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), the turning point in the war.

Some of the most important and powerful examples of 19th-century American art were made in the years surrounding and during the Civil War. And yet, very few of these works actually depict battle scenes. The exhibition The Civil War and American Art examines outstanding landscapes, genre paintings, and photographs to identify their many layers of meaning. Because the conflict so deeply affected America’s character and visual culture, artists encoded its significance and implications in their works, even when they did not appear to address the war directly.

A highlight of the initial gallery is landscapist Martin Johnson Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm (1859, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Although Heade’s painting accords with his preferred subject matter of coastlands and marshes, its message is unusually ominous. Heade portrays not the storm itself but rather its tense preamble of blackening sky and eerie light. He initially sketched this scene about 1858, and when he returned to the subject in 1859, he signaled the nation’s mood—a sense of foreboding before the inevitable onset of a tempest.

Usually identified with grandiose landscapes, Frederic Edwin Church may have created the small-scale work Our Banner in the Sky (1861, Collection of Fred Keeler) in response to the valiant defense of the American flag during the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12–14, 1861, the event that initiated the Civil War. On May 19, 1861, the New York Daily Tribune noted, “Mr. Church has been painting a symbolical landscape embodying the stars and stripes. It is an evening scene, with long lines of red and gold typifying the stripes, and a patch of blue sky with the dimly-twinkling stars in a corner for the Union.” The artist transformed the evocative sunset into nature’s memorial, the very landscape appearing to mourn the dissolution of the Union and the nation—like the edges of the flag—in tatters.

Despite the difficulties of transporting their photographic equipment and supplies to a war zone, several American photographers established their reputations by capturing the grim reality of death on the battlefield. Although the resulting images were lauded for their accuracy, it is evident that the photographers invested them with multiple layers of meaning beyond documentation. One grouping of albumen prints (all loaned by the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia) focuses on the human toll of the war. In Alexander Gardner’s Confederate Dead at Antietam, September 19, 1862, a split rail fence draws the viewer’s attention to a row of corpses on the ground and raises a question: did the fence prevent these soldiers from escaping death? In Gardner’s Bloody Lane, Confederate Dead, Antietam, September 19, 1862, the bodies of the dead are piled atop one another in a muddy ditch, while two soldiers stand guard. Because only the torsos and legs of the two guards are shown, death and the dead are clearly the subject of this photograph. And Timothy O’Sullivan’s best-known work—A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863—shows two dozen fallen soldiers lying where they died on the field of battle. A face, the hands, and details of the clothing of soldiers in the foreground are in sharp focus, while other figures in the background—presumably soldiers guarding the area—nearly disappear into the haze. Such images of dead Americans were shown in New York and Washington, providing firsthand records of the carnage to an audience that had a morbid curiosity about war-related imagery, but that simultaneously found it to be too immediate and too gruesome.

A second group of photographs (all loaned by The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri) that appears later in the exhibition considers the “landscape of war”—the aftermath of William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaigns in the South. Although George N. Barnard’s Scene of General McPherson’s Death (1864) appears, at first glance, to show simply a clearing in the woods, closer study reveals the partial skeleton—a skull and pelvis—of a horse, presumably the remains of the General’s mount, the smaller bones of which have been reclaimed by nature. In Barnard’s Rebel works in front of Atlanta, Georgia, No. 1 (1864), the formerly peaceful countryside is scarred by military roads, eroded and denuded land, and a variety of military fortifications—from sandbags and stockades to the anti-cavalry defensive structures known as chevaux de frise. Although the roads and structures suggest recent human activity, all are abandoned and the land is deserted.

Among the soldiers on both sides of the conflict were several prominent artists, including the landscapist Sanford Robinson Gifford, who served in the Union army, and Conrad Wise Chapman, who served the Confederacy. Gifford’s Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland, 1863 (1864, New York State Military Museum) is based on sketches he made during his three tours of duty with the Seventh Regiment of the New York National Guard in the spring and summer of 1861, 1862, and 1863. It shows members of the Regiment dressed in their Guardsman grays just days after the Battle of Gettysburg, in the “beautiful country” Gifford described in a letter to his father. He added: “We came into this field . . . in the rain and bivouacked in the mud. It did not take us long to strip the neighboring fences of their remaining rails, and thatch them with sheaves of wheat from the next field.”

Another painting by Gifford captured the turbulence of the period: A Coming Storm (1863, retouched and re-dated in 1880, Philadelphia Museum of Art), is not only ominous, but is linked to Lincoln’s assassination because it was owned by the actor Edwin Booth, the assassin John Wilkes Booth’s brother.

Chapman’s The Flag of Sumter, October 20, 1863 (1863–64, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia) features the Confederate flag flying over Fort Sumter, which resisted repeated Union attacks. Having survived another day’s shelling, the flag snaps defiantly in a strong breeze at sundown, perhaps symbolizing Chapman’s faith in the southern cause. The work is one of 31 small paintings by Chapman that intended to document the fortifications surrounding Charleston’s harbor, of which nine are included in the exhibition.

As a civilian artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly, Winslow Homer visited the Union front several times during the Civil War, making sketches that would be reproduced as wood engravings in the magazine and later using them for reference in painting oils. Home, Sweet Home (ca. 1863, National Gallery of Art) shows two Union soldiers pausing before a tent—their “home” at the front—while their regimental band plays in the distance. A Union general recorded the custom of bands playing “martial and national airs” late in the afternoon: on the Union side, “The Star-spangled banner,” to be answered along the Confederate lines by “Dixie.” He added, “At the close some band would strike up that melody which comes nearest the hearts of all true men, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and every band within hearing would join in that sacred anthem.”

Before the Civil War, depictions of black Americans were most often caricatures or stereotypes. Growing racial awareness is reflected in works such as Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862 (1862, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond), which shows a black family hoping to gain freedom by fleeing to the Union lines, despite the dire consequences of failure. Against a chilly predawn glow, the father leans forward, urging on his horse, fearing a bullet, and yet focused on liberating himself and his family. His young son, sitting in front of him, echoes the father’s resolve. The man’s wife sits behind him, clasping an infant to her chest. She looks back, half in fear and watchfulness, half in sorrow for what she might have left behind, however dismal it might have been. This family symbolizes all who are displaced in an effort to make a better life. Yet, by showing black Americans squarely in the foreground, Johnson elevated them in the national debate.

For those who had remained at home, the end of the war represented a different kind of battleground. Women assumed new roles as they became the heads of households, some temporarily, others permanently. The message of unavoidable change and pervasive uncertainty as the war ended infuses Eastman Johnson’s haunting painting The Girl I Left Behind Me (ca. 1872, Smithsonian American Art Museum). A girl stands on a promontory, the horizon obscured by fog. Her fingers hold her place in a small stack of books. The wedding ring on her hand suggests her commitment to her union—but is that a reference to her personal life or to the Union as the nation? She appears to be waiting for a break in the clouds, for some sign of what to expect next in Reconstruction-era America. Johnson himself did not quite seem to know how to position this work in the public eye. In 1872 he displayed it as The Foggy Day, subsequently opting for Young Maidenhood before settling on The Girl I Left Behind Me, the title of a song popular during the Civil War with both Union and Confederate soldiers. Although Johnson’s girl is buffeted by the wind, she appears determined to stand firm, but she has no clear path forward.

After the war, works such as Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865, Birmingham Museum of Art) addressed the nation’s hopes for the future. The sun’s golden rays bathe the unspoiled wilderness in this majestic landscape, which—unique among Bierstadt’s many paintings of Yosemite—is devoid of animals or humans. This is a new Eden that promises renewal and healing after the trauma of war and sectarian strife.

The exhibition is organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey, Senior Curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum. At the Metropolitan, the exhibition is curated by H. Barbara Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, The American Wing. Exhibition design is by Michael Batista, Exhibition Design Manager, with the assistance of Brian Cha, Exhibition Design Associate; graphics are by Constance Norkin, Graphic Design Manager; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Museum’s Design Department.

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May 27, 2013

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