Feature

Exhibit of the week: The Civil War and American Art

America’s painters responded to the Civil War with a new and distinct visual language.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.Through April 28

Until the mid-19th century, “war was terrible, but it was also heroic,” said Adrian Hamilton in The Independent (U.K.). Or at least painters had generally made it seem so: America’s Benjamin West and France’s Jacques Louis-David unfurled grand battlefields upon which brave warriors were either seizing victory or suffering Christ-like deaths while comrades looked on. But the American Civil War and the arrival of photography changed what a painter could get away with. Photographers had the true horrors of battle covered: Alexander Gardner’s images of the dead at Antietam and Gettysburg appear in this small but “searching” show, and they’re “as great and as grim as any achieved in the European world wars or Vietnam.” The painters couldn’t match that, and didn’t try. But they were determined to find their own ways to respond to the cataclysm.

Those responses were often subtle, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Many of the 57 paintings on display here contain no battle imagery. One, Eastman Johnson’s 1864 Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family, shows a wealthy white family in their parlor, watching one of the children play with a minstrel doll while the sky darkens outside the window. In Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1861 Twilight in the Catskills, a setting sun turns the sky red behind lifeless trees. “The skeptic might argue that not every hint of uneasiness in a landscape is proof the artist was thinking about war,” but curator Eleanor Jones Harvey makes a strong case that America’s painters developed a distinct visual language to represent the era’s anxieties. In postwar paintings, similar symbolism often enacted fantasies of reconciliation during a period of enduringly bitter division.

At least one great painter didn’t shy away from reality, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. During the war, young Winslow Homer worked on the front lines as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, capturing the realities of combat in “astonishing, acutely observed” oil sketches. He was unnerved by what he saw but never looked away from the struggles that followed. His Veteran in a New Field, from 1865, seems an optimistic image at first: The lone figure wields a scythe in a wheat field, with his back to us and his Army coat tossed aside. But is this rejuvenated version of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer actually a man without a future, or the Grim Reaper himself? “Just thinking such thoughts, asking and wondering, is what this show is about.” 

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