War and Paint: Art of the Civil War
November 15, 2012
Eye Level had a chance to speak with Eleanor Harvey, senior curator at American Art, and curator of the new exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, opening at the museum on November 16. The exhibition takes a close look at the war through the eyes of artists who captured the soldiers in the field, the people back home, as well as the war’s aftermath: abolition, emancipation, and reconstruction.
Eye Level: Eleanor, when did you first become interested in the art of the Civil War?
Eleanor Harvey: I first started asking questions about Civil War paintings in 1980. I grew up in Virginia but I did not grow up steeped in it. I’m sure all my relatives fought for the Confederacy, but nobody really talked about it. You cleaned it up and put it out of your mind. In a similar way, American art forgot about the Civil War. It’s almost as though you can read any book from middle of the 18th century and never find the Civil War as a major topic.
EL: How does the exhibition define the role of art during the Civil War?
EH: This exhibition considers the war’s impact on American art and on the artists who experienced it firsthand. It features America’s finest painters of the era, such as Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, Winslow Homer, and Eastman Johnson, and photographers George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan. The Civil War is an impossible war to romanticize and a hard war to depict. In terms of the visual record of the war and its aftermath, there are three factors in play: landscape painting provides the mood for the nation; battlefield photography destroys Americans’ romantic views of war, and takes the air out of the room; and genre painting which tries to inject empathy back into the room.
EL: When the artist is in the field, does he remain an artist or is he considered a soldier as well? Are they embedded, to use a word we’ve heard too often in recent years?
EH: The exhibition begins with a quote from Eugene Benson from May 1866: “Our painters have worked in the midst of great events, and therefore subjected to the most tumultuous, shattering and ennobling experiences.” Most of the artists are sketching in the field: Sanford Gifford had a sketchbook and he was carrying a musket. Winslow Homer, who was working for Harper’s Weekly magazine, accompanied the Union army beginning in 1861, observing sharpshooters at work, enduring lengthy sieges, and witnessing fierce combat. He followed the war the whole time and saw the “Skirmish in the Wilderness” which was a horrific battle. In 1861, Albert Bierstadt got a one-week pass to go to Langley (not too far from here). When he was drafted two years later, he paid a substitute to take his place. The artists would dress as civilians, hang out with the camp troops, and try not to get shot. As long as they stayed out of the way, sketched for the amusement of the troops, the army didn’t mind having them there.
EL: How did they deliver their sketches from the field?
EH: By train. They hit the nearest train depot to send their work back north to New York for the wood engravers who got them ready for press. So, Homer is not doing his own wood engraving at this time. He sends them to the professional wood engravers that Harper’s Weekly has on staff. At this time, the press was coming of age; photography was coming of age; journalism was coming of age; and the illustrated weeklies, such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and competing daily newspapers just took off like a rocket. Each newspaper had its own political views that also were reflected in its art criticism. They interpreted art based on their editorial bias.
EL: How so?
EH: Take Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South, which is a scathing indictment of race as an arbiter of whether you were a person or property. It’s Johnson’s first painting that is war related and depicts eleven enslaved people. The New York Herald, a Democratic newspaper, which wanted to save the union at all costs, said in effect, “The people in the painting are happy, they’re healthy they’re playing music—it can’t be all that bad.” The New York Tribune, on the other hand was a Republican, pro-Lincoln paper before Lincoln was even a candidate. Their critic basically wrote, “The roof over their heads is about to crash down on them just as the institution of slavery is about to crash and is rotten to the core.” The New York Times was founded in 1851 to tread the middle ground between them which is why their masthead says, “all the news that’s fit to print,” with the implication that what the others are publishing is rubbish.
EL: The last section of the exhibition features landscapes that include icebergs and volcanoes, among other natural phenomenon. How does that speak to the Civil War?
EH: There is a sense of the world as we know it coming apart at the seams. The war is an earthquake in the night, and the armies rise like floods. Nature and weather metaphors come from soldiers’ diaries, songs, letters, and the New York Times. References to the landscape are used in order to see how we are making sense of the war. In the 1860s if you see a volcano erupting, even if it's Church's painting of the Ecuadorian volcano Cotopaxi, it's another picture of Eden on fire, and America was the New Eden. Frederick Douglass delivered an address in June 1861 titled “The American Apocalypse” in which he affirmed, “Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on the earth.” Several of these works are bought by abolitionist preachers. I don’t think Martin Johnson Heade, whose work from 1859 Approaching Thunder Storm is included in the exhibition, walked into his studio and said let’s paint a thunderstorm about the Civil War. The fact that a thunderstorm is looming and barometric pressure is dropping when all hell is going to break loose, illustrates how the landscape paintings become the emotional barometer for the nation.
The Civil War and American Art opens November 16 and runs through April 28, 2013. To view a slide show of works in the exhibition and comments click here.
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