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The Art of Our Terrible War

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Metropolitan Museum of Art
Winslow Homer: The Veteran in a New Field, 24 1/8 x 38 1/8 inches, 1865

Beautifully crisp handling of paint is what we expect from Winslow Homer, the artist most associated with the war. Twenty-five years old in 1861, he followed the conflict as a sketch artist for Harper’s Weekly, and the first paintings he ever made were scenes from the front. Homer may be best known for his later pictures of the pounding sea and Maine coastal life, but in his finest early paintings, whether of army life or, after the war, of courting rituals and rural ways, he was a sharp-eyed social observer. He was a dramatist of sorts, too, and already in Home, Sweet Home (circa 1863) and The Veteran in a New Field (1865), which are among the stronger works in the exhibition, he was making pictures in which the viewer is invited to puzzle out what is going on in the scene and titles are part of the experience of the works.

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National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Winslow Homer: Home, Sweet Home, 21 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches, circa 1863

The soldiers in Home, Sweet Home, seen before their tent and fire, have made a makeshift “home” for themselves and are no doubt thinking of their real one. The veteran, who we see from the rear, cutting down a wall of wheat before him with his scythe, is at a moment in his life when his past and present are wildly different yet inseparable. Ambiguously, he works his crop in a way that might recall what he did when he was in uniform. Homer even suggests that the farmer, while fortunate to have survived the war, is—in his hunched posture and homely little hat—diminished by being replanted in his field.

Homer’s work of this time lends itself to Harvey’s way of examining all the details and nuances in a picture and pulling from them a message. She holds us as well when deciphering related paintings by Homer’s contemporary Eastman Johnson. Her description of his large Negro Life at the South (1859)—a stage set–like scene, in the backyard of a house in Washington, with little groups of black people here and there—freshly recreates the dilemmas of the slave system.

Johnson, a New Englander, was an abolitionist in his sympathies, but his life changed when, in 1857, his father, a widower, remarried into a slaveholding family (which was descended from George Washington). Harvey shows how the artist’s personally compromised position, and the compromised position of the whole nation, is mirrored in Negro Life. In the picture, the slaves’ house abuts the house of their owner, and Johnson’s theme is this sordid and festering closeness. The key actor in his tableau is a young woman. She is seen cautiously stepping from the master’s house into the slaves’ yard from a nearly hidden little door connecting one world with the other. She at first appears to be a white visitor but, as Harvey puts her finger on the various clues, is probably mulatto, and is at home nowhere.

The drawback to Harvey’s careful and even suspenseful analysis of Negro Life and of other paintings by Johnson is that few of these complexities are alive to us as we look at his pictures. Unless we are studying them in a book, with an interpretation printed alongside, Johnson’s paintings come across as products of a bygone time. The most distinctive aspect of his art is his feeling for brown. He has more shades of it than you knew existed.

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New-York Historical Society
Eastman Johnson: Negro Life at the South, 37 x 46 inches, 1859

The Winslow Homer of Harvey’s pages also seems to be something of a fantasy. For Harvey, the painter reacted to the “war’s brutality” with “anguish and sympathy.” She believes that a “sense of tragic loss permeates much of Homer’s wartime oeuvre.” She sees, further, in the handful of pictures he made around 1876 of black people—such as A Visit from the Old Mistress, where an impassive white woman faces her former slaves, who look back undemonstratively—a “deeply thoughtful” awareness of the problems facing blacks and whites after emancipation.

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Smithsonian American Art Museum
Winslow Homer: A Visit from the Old Mistress, 18 x 24 inches, 1876

But Homer’s work in the show is not, as Harvey puts it, “monumental” in feeling, and she is on thin ice in telling us what concern or cause he was espousing in this or that scene. He was famously tight-lipped about himself and his goals throughout his life. Nor do the words “sense of tragic loss” mesh with the spirit of the pictures he did of camp life. The best are more like accounts of men making do in trying circumstances. By temperament, Homer seems less a “tragic” creator than a stylish and dryly ironic one. He surely put as much artistic energy into recording the clothes people wore as in making statements about his society’s ills, and when he shows a black person looking wary or apprehensive this doesn’t automatically lend the work a rich undertow of feeling. In the vaguely distrustful visages he can give the black and the white characters in his pictures he might be saying something about his own insistent need for privacy.

No one can question the tragic and brutal nature of the Civil War. But Harvey overrates the degree to which artists, in their work, were not only consumed by the events but desirous of seeing them in loftily tragic ways. In her presentation of the photography of the time, one wonders if, with her heightened concern for the suffering caused by the war—and her belief that the American land itself was the preeminent subject for the American artist in these years—she has not slanted the subject somewhat. The twenty-odd photos she has chosen present almost exclusively devastation, whether they are of dead soldiers left on the fields after Antietam and Gettysburg or the ruined condition of Charleston and Columbia and of sites in Georgia after Sherman swept through them. There are very few living people in these pictures. They all present land (and city streets) marked by loss.

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Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
George N. Bernard: Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina, 10 x 14 1/8 inches, 1865

Harvey wants us to see that these wrenching photos, which apparently received much attention in the press when they were shown to the public during the war, represented, to the photographers, the artistic side of their work. It is valuable to learn this. In her chapter on the subject, though, Harvey doesn’t make clear how these men, including Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and George Barnard (who followed Sherman’s campaign), saw themselves as artists.

We hear about how Gardner, say, “artfully” worked to show Lincoln towering over General McClellan and his staff when the president went to the front after Antietam. But it is hard, looking at the photo, to see what Gardner’s artistry was. Lincoln was simply taller than most of his contemporaries. Without denying their industry or heroism—or, in Barnard’s case, the gripping clarity of his images—mightn’t the photographers be seen just as accurately as entrepreneurs who looked to current notions of “fine art” in order to elevate their fledgling endeavor?

The Civil War, as it happened, generated an enormous and many-sided body of photographs. And when one goes through the various collections of photos of the era, including Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War (1866), which Harvey cites—or the excellent 1952 Divided We Fought: A Pictorial History of the War, 1861–1865, which has a running commentary by the historian David Donald—one can be overwhelmed by the variety and intensity of the hundreds of shots. In these books the pictures of the war dead and of bombed-out Southern places are simply part of the flow of images. They are of a piece with photos of a drum corps or the 4th US Colored Infantry posing for its picture, or of captured Confederates waiting for what happens next—or of Grant stopping to talk with a member of his Council of War as the rest of the Council, sitting on pews that have been taken outdoors from a church, read the paper, smoke, or glance at the photographer.

In Divided We Fought, there are pictures of dead soldiers at a distance from us, as Harvey presents them; but there are also startling close-ups of dead soldiers. Would the photographers have felt that these extraordinary images were merely documents but their pictures of fields with corpses were works of art? There are photos in the book as well for which we are totally unprepared. An image of a few Union soldiers seen from the rear, sitting on a rise as they look out over a camp at Cumberland Landing, could almost be, in its gracefulness and spontaneity, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Or we encounter a transfixingly elegant photograph of three officers of the 1st Connecticut Artillery standing by a tree, with the one in the middle reading a piece of paper as his fellows look into the distance. Like the picture of the soldiers at Cumberland Landing, it turns on its head the notion that when we look at photographs we are taken into the past.

The point is not that there is a show’s worth of Civil War art that Harvey has ignored. My sense is that she has ably culled what little traditionally conceived art the conflict produced. But visual work of great expressivity, it turns out, is rarely to be found in the fine art of the time. Images full of character and emotion can be seen, though, in many of the photo portraits of officers and enlisted men in a book like Divided We Fought. Their faces bespeak the adamancy, plaintiveness, and frozen blankness that had to have been much in evidence at the moment. Walking through the Smithsonian’s collection after seeing Harvey’s show, I was struck, in turn, by an anonymous folk carving of Stephen A. Douglas, a principal player in the era if not the war (the senator died in 1861). With his darkened, secretive eyes, this bullish and demonic figure embodies the bursting energies of the time and of folk art itself (and suggests why curators are loath to mix it in with traditional mainstream art).

The photographs of Lincoln also put us in touch with a vital drama of some sort. As Harvey notes, the president was interested in having his picture taken throughout his career. Over a hundred photos of him survive, the majority perhaps done during his years in the White House. In the engrossing and beautifully printed The Face of Lincoln (1979), we see, from picture to picture, a wry, devious, impatient, unusually gawky, bemused, and sometimes quite formidable man, ending with the well-known late close-up of a softly smiling president. The images show a born performer, and make clear, you might say, that life as well as death is a part of war.

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