The Civil War pitted North against South; brother against brother; one region’s concept of what it is to be free against another’s. It ranged for nearly half a decade across the breadth of an emerging nation; killed more people than had ever fallen on American soil; and changed our democratic process forever. It scarred the land; it laid waste to hope and community; and it knit a whole nation back together.
The eponymous exhibit at the Smithsonian American Museum attempts to tell this story in a way that isn’t startlingly original, but grows on you as you browse; look at the pictures; and see what America had been before 1861 and became after arms were laid down at Appomattox and everybody went home.
Its format is simplicity itself. It starts with the war already in progress and meanders through it. Then it shows us what the world was like before things got out of hand and America might still be considered a place of unlimited potential supported by untold acreages of unspoiled nature. It even suggests that America embraced the whole world, which came to its doorstep in the form of panoramic paintings that made people gasp when they stood before them, in tidy little queues, around the nation.
Rather than describe every image, I’d like to single out a few.
As most people know, the Civil War was waged largely in the South. Therefore, its devastation, not only at the “enemy’s” hands, but as a result of its adaptation to war, is a frequent (and harrowing) subject of the painter’s brush and photographer’s lens. And some of the most fully realized images of a war-torn landscape are photographs. The most emblematic of these were taken by George N. Barnard, who shows us the gauntly mysterious ruins of towns – in this case, Columbia and Charleston, SC - and plantations after a Union siege. In their own way, they give us the repercussions of “total” warfare as definitively as Gardner’s miniature corpses, which litter corn and wheat fields with the regularity of natural processes. Photography brought death to the American people in a brand-new way. Once seen, it could not be gainsaid. The heaps of bodies, dead horses, and gunned-down detritus seared themselves into a consciousness that was not prepared for these images. Yet got them it did. And because these photographs came early – and often – the American people became accustomed to them. And never quite got over it. Subsequent wars would do the same, but this was the first time in our history that we could not – without deluding ourselves catastrophically – deny what was happening out there.
We, the People, had been weaned on the grandly picturesque imagery of glaciers and mountains; of sun-filled swatches of nature drowsing for our pleasure and edification; of “good” slaves and kindly masters. But once the war started and the photos started pouring in, we could no longer believe in such fantasies. We, the People, had to confront the possibility of dissolution. How many more, we asked, could be spared? And would, whenever the thing ended, there be anyone left to rebuild?
For the first time, America confronted its death-throes and – until the sleep of Reconstruction and the prosperity that followed – we, the People, were haunted by it.
The exhibit is, however, broad-based. There are some pictures of soldiers at rest – or joshing around; pictures of bivouacs – of which the most luminous would be from Sanford Gifford, who was a great artist by any yardstick. And there are pictures of good men and women trying their best to make sense of things – or just going about their daily lives.
And there is the two-headed wall that shows, on the one hand, how happy an institution slavery can be (compliments of Eastman Johnson) and a more honest view by his old studio-mate, Winslow Homer, which shows the help dressing up for a carnival.
It is interesting to contemplate these two paintings, as they show, not only opposing worldviews, but painting techniques that are wildly at variance as well.
Johnson’s picture is almost unbearably saccharine and is painted with a niggling sense of the all-inclusive. It is as much an enumeration of things as a painting. But its message is clear: it was not only all right to be owned by somebody else, but downright entertaining. A banjo is being strummed, people are a-courtin’, and the white lady is a minor character. It sho’ am a nice place, ‘dat ole slavey-shack! Let’s keep on livin’ easy, ya’ll!
Homer’s picture is more honest – shimmeringly so! The help’s having fun, but we know it’s not going to last. It’s been reprieved for the carnival it’s going to have and is getting ready for. The painting’s delight consists not only in the subtle relationships of the frieze-like group, but in its luscious color-harmonies and sunny ambience. Every millimeter is informed by sunlight. And Homer takes such exquisite advantage of it that the picture lives and breathes for us – as Eastman Johnson’s, which is essentially a caricature, never will. Johnson’s is an artifice; Homer’s is alive. Johnson shows us a fiction; Homer a pleasant, but finite, reality. Which painting speaks to us the most?
I will gladly leave that to Us, the American People.
Homer’s second-best offering is Veteran in a New Field, which has been said, by at least one historian, to represent the death – as it’s wielded in scythe-like form by a former soldier – of the new republic. I don’t believe that to be the case at all. Our former soldier is tending to the work that was interrupted by a war he did not start himself, but helped, along with thousands of other Americans, dead and living now, to finish. He is standing inside of the freedom he helped re-established and is getting down to business. That’s more than enough meaning to pack into a single image.
The war in its horrific entirety is played out from room to room; in Conrad Wise Chapman’s paintings of Charleston Harbor; in Jervis McEntee’s presentation of a moody landscape with two symbolic children; in Eastman Johnson’s genuinely moving image of real people who happen to be slaves escaping, on horseback, to freedom. (He redeemed himself, in one fell swoop, with this marvelous picture!)
There is Thomas Moran’s version of a pack of dogs, followed by their human masters, pursuing slaves on the run. (As in all of his work, the surrounding landscape is lushly neutral – a seductive sort of place but for the human drama.) And John Frederick Kensett’s two versions of the same little pond, surrounded by “Rocks of Paradise” – from which the titles of the paintings are derived - before and after the war that affected him and everyone else. (Even Homer, a stoic’s stoic, claimed to have been changed forever by it.) In A Coming Storm, Gifford’s ominous cloud-rack prompted a Herman Melville poem, which caught the spirit of agonized anticipation. (Ironically, the painting was owned by Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln’s assassin.) Finally, there are the Church’s and the Bierstadt’s: whopping landscapes that fed our sense of wonder when we were more wet behind the ears – or willing to be.
Some kitsch too. Thomas Cole’s idiotic American flag – with which he chose to blazon the sky of a fortunately small painting – is as bad as any patriotic rant. In a money-making mood, our friend Eastman Johnson gives us a quintessentially happy family, which is – yes, happily – stranded amidst the blood-rich woodwork and complicated gewgaws of the Gilded Age. Its cardboard characters interact with a joyous concern for one another – just has happy families should. As a corrective, I would suggest an episode of American Dad.
The exhibit’s props and accessories are also effective. As is its explanatory narratives, which are layered with history and politics.
Special thanks goes to Eleanor Harvey, who curated the show, and has written a book that is almost sinfully readable (as most art history is not.)
“The Civil War and American Art” is on view through April 28 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F Streets, NW, Washington; (202) 633-1000, americanart.si.edu. It travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art May 27 to Sept. 2; metmuseum.org.