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 decided quickly, and soon became, and remained for some three years, a colossal stalemate, causing undreamed of and unprecedented destructiveness, was in a sense an agony that didn’t give artists room to step back and comment on the events in personal ways.
There have, of course, been many books and exhibitions that documented the war’s battles and combatants and gave a sense, using photographs, paintings, and drawings made in the field, of what the era “looked like.” The present show is apparently the first, however, to pin down the effect the war had on artists—and by artists it essentially means the trained or professional figures who, with New York as the center of their operations, made up the art world of the day. Thus we are given none of the often subtle and sure-handed on-the-spot drawings of military actions (some of the best are by Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes) and, also unfortunately, no paintings or sculptures by folk or self-taught artists. On the positive side, there are no standardized, presentation-piece portraits or boilerplate scenes of valiant regiments marching off to war or engaging the enemy.
The show was organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the sole author of the accompanying catalog. (Most museum publications of comparable size are made up of separate articles by different writers who are experts on aspects of the general subject.) A scholar who has written about Frederic Church, Harvey has been inspired by the scope of the war and by the issues of loss it brings up, in particular, as she writes, “the reaction to death” and “the point that no one escaped the war unscathed.” She has mastered an enormous amount of diverse information. Her catalog’s huge bibliography is divided into sections on art, photography, history, science and exploration, literature and music, and slavery and abolition, and she makes much of this material come across as a single, almost magisterial, story.
Harvey sees how the very nature of the Civil War created difficulties for artists. Her approach, though, is more literary and symbolical than aesthetic, and she believes that the works she has chosen present a kind of poetic narrative about America. Like other art historians and curators of nineteenth-century American art, she views landscape painting, particularly the heroic and romantic canvases of the Hudson River school (and of succeeding landscapists), as emblematic of the ways Americans thought about themselves and their country in the decades before the Civil War. What Harvey wants to tell here is how painters, in canvases that show destabilized skies and terrains, and then photographers, in their images of ravaged, corpse-strewn sites, recorded the loss of the “Eden” or “sanctuary” that the landscapists had shown the country to be.
Going on to the storylike paintings made by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson in these years, Harvey brings an even more pressing moral note to her descriptions. In the few pictures Homer made of life for blacks during the war and after emancipation, and in Johnson’s pictures of black people from the time, she sees artists who “demonstrate an acuteness of vision rare in American art.” Their stature, for her, has much to do with their showing black people to be “as complex as any white person” and their seeing how differences between the races, and between the North and the South, would not be easily resolved.
If only in the enormous amount of information she has smoothly brought together, Harvey’s book will probably stand for some time as the authoritative word on the subject. Yet she works from assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses of nineteenth-century American art that are debatable. Caught up in the momentousness of the era she is dealing with, moreover, she finds political and cultural resonances in paintings and photographs that, judged as art, as objects on a wall, simply do not support such acclaim. And, irritatingly, she seems to believe that when the story inherent in a picture is fleshed out, or when the possible symbolism in a picture is brought to light, there is no more to say.
Martin Johnson Heade’s 1859 Approaching Thunder Storm, for example, where we see a man seated by an inlet, looking out at a big sky that is becoming frighteningly dark, is in the show because “perceptive viewers” at the time saw pictures like it being about the incipient collapse of the Union over slavery—what Lincoln had in mind when, in 1860, he referred to a “coming storm.” With its few clear, strong colors, its brilliantly convincing presentation of a sense of menace in the air, and the way the space of the scene is expressed in a number of serene, expanding curves, Approaching Thunder Storm is one of the truly distinctive nineteenth-century American paintings. It is easily the strongest picture in the exhibition. Whether Heade was making a point about the climate of his nation, however, remains a matter of conjecture, even considering the fact that the picture was owned by Noah Schenck, a known abolitionist preacher.
The trouble with seeing images of coming storms as harbingers of the war is that American landscape artists were handling the theme long before the war, during it, and after it. One of Heade’s other extraordinary works, Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, which also presents the moment before a deluge (and is not in the show), is dated 1868. Was he thinking in this instance, three years after the war’s end, about legislation looming in the South that would one day segregate blacks from whites? But the larger point is that when artworks are as satisfyingly full as Heade’s paintings of the moments before a storm, we don’t want to see them—some of us almost literally cannot absorb them—as carriers of themes that have no apparent relation to the scene at hand. The notion shrivels the work.
When Harvey asks us, in turn, to see allusions to the imperiled state of the nation in the works by Church that are in the exhibition—most of them mammoth, splashily colored, and intricately detailed panoramas of icebergs, or double rainbows in the mountains, or erupting volcanoes—the situation is different. It is hard to care one way or another. Church may have been a wizard of technique, and for many he seems to be a fixture of our art. But his major efforts are like travelogues—ponderous and obvious ones. Allusions could be found in them to virtually anything, and we would still be looking at artifacts.
Harvey tells how a Church showstopper from 1861 called The Icebergs, which was about the allure of the Arctic (and came from a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador), was retitled “The North.” Church’s Picture of Icebergs when it was shown in New York in April of that year—the point being to connect the painting to the unfolding national crisis. When the unsold work went to London in 1862, its title reverted to The Icebergs, because the British audience had mixed feelings about the cause of “the North.” The picture is in the exhibition because its history illustrates the way the wartime drama and Church’s art came together. But isn’t the story primarily about marketing?
With some of the paintings in the show by Sanford R. Gifford, though, we are given a taste of the actual event. Gifford’s presence is a pleasant surprise. He was an accomplished landscape painter whose chosen theme was distant views suffused by a misty, often golden atmosphere. But throughout his abbreviated career (he died in 1880, at fifty-seven) he attempted to bring little figures into his vistas, and he rarely did a better job of it than in the intimately sized pictures here of soldiers and civilians standing about, listening to a Sunday morning sermon in a field near Washington, in May 1861, and of Union soldiers setting up camp in July 1863, near Frederick, Maryland (see illustration on page 16).
The paintings are of Gifford’s own unit, the New York Seventh Regiment National Guard, which was called up for short tours in the first three years of the war (and whose home, from 1880, would be the Park Avenue Armory). When you look up the Seventh on Wikipedia, the picture you see, of an unidentified soldier, is Gifford. His May 1861 scene transports us to a highly specific moment, at once blithe and tense: the capital in the weeks after Fort Sumter has been fired on, and a conflict of some kind seems to be a reality, but before the First Battle of Bull Run (which would come in July), when a grimmer reality emerged. Gifford’s pictures from 1863, in which the Seventh is setting up camp, are even better. He has made his figures slightly bigger, and it is a joy to follow the seemingly nonchalant yet precise way he has brushed in his long-limbed soldiers, their tents, their laundry hung out to dry, and, as Harvey points out, himself sketching.