Taken simply as an exhibition of paintings and photographs, the works that make up “The Civil War and American Art,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, form a muffled and somehow scattered, even numbing, display. In pictures that date from 1852 to 1877 but were mostly made during the war years, we see soldiers in camp, battlefields after the fighting, with dead infantrymen remaining to be buried, and the fortifications around the port of Charleston, South Carolina. There are scenes of the life of black people before and after the war, and, surprisingly, a good number of landscapes. They are of threatening weather or unusual developments in the sky—or are grandiose vistas of the Andes and the Arctic by Frederic Church or of Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt—and are to be seen as reflecting the moods of the moment. Considering how fraught, wounding, and dramatic an event the war has long been in our national consciousness, the exhibition feels anticlimactic. It has few commanding or affecting images of people. We walk away wondering where everyone is.
No war, of course, has an obligation to inspire works of art, let alone great ones, and a viewer can quickly become disgusted with himself or herself for finding the purely artistic results of the Civil War to be only moderately engaging. Probably few wars have compared with World War I in the art that emerged during and after it. Considerable amounts of sentimental and propagandistic work were, it is true, produced on both sides. Yet the war gave rise to paintings and sculptures of imaginative power by artists who were commissioned by their governments to record the events (notably Paul Nash) and by artists who were merely soldiers or onlookers at the time—figures such as Max Beckmann, Fernand Léger, Marsden Hartley, Walter Sickert, Otto Dix, Félix Vallotton, William Nicholson, E.L. Kirchner, Christopher Nevinson, and Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Lasting works were created about the nightmare of combat, bereavement in itself, and even the sheer physical exhilaration engendered by serving one’s country.
The circumstances of our Civil War were quite different. Given the still relatively youthful and exploratory state of American art in the middle of the nineteenth century, it is remarkable that any first-rate artworks were made at all. Few already established painters dealt directly with the topic, and no government agencies at the time, in Washington or Richmond, paid artists to document the events. Photography, then hardly beyond its nascent stage, was in the hands of people who were learning on the job what the camera’s capacities were in wartime. But the largest issue, commented on by observers, had to do with the fratricidal, and not always morally clear-cut, nature of the conflict. The war, which was initially expected to be…
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