Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Civil War and American Art

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Civil War and American Art

Article excerpt

The Civil War and American Art. By Eleanor Jones Flarvey. (New Haven, Conn.: Published by Yale University Press for the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012. Pp. [xviii], 316. $65.00, ISBN 978-0-300-18733-5.)

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, writers often evoked storms and cataclysms, expressing national concerns in meteorological and geological metaphors. The visual culture of the era was no less figurative. This exhibition catalog explores a broad selection of paintings and photographs depicting the fight itself and also what author Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, calls the "subtle reverberations of the war in otherwise unrelated subjects" (p. 2).

Very few successful grand manner narrative scenes came out of the war. As the author astutely points out, the war in its immediacy proved difficult to assimilate into coherent narratives and ennobling moral lessons. Instead, the war was expressed in more abstract subjects like landscape or in more intimate ones such as genre and photography. While paintings by southern artists are included in this book, the war is seen primarily from the northern perspective. This approach reflects the disparity at the time; vastly more paintings were made in the North, the author is careful to note, because patrons and art materials were harder to come by in the South, especially as the war dragged on.

The allegorical impulse is most fully explored in the discussion of landscape, but it recurs throughout the book. American landscape painting in the first half of the nineteenth century was charged with national significance. In the 1850s and 1860s, the author argues, "'the ominous hush'" of a bay before a storm or the bloodred tones of a wilderness sunset were seen as allegories of the political crisis (p. 22). Harvey's interpretations are based on scholarship on American landscape painting of the past few decades and are thus well grounded in primary sources, though sometimes the relation of image to rhetoric is a bit tenuous.

In her discussion of wartime photography, Harvey puts much of the focus on familiar photographs of the destruction of buildings and of bodies. Photographers worked against the indifference of the medium to inscribe narrative and still life conventions onto the carnage. Again, this is a familiar argument in the history of photography. Harvey might have taken the chapter further to include a broader selection of the visual culture of the war and perhaps draw some meaning from the most prevalent type of photography during the war--the masses of cheap portraits of soldiers. …

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