Painting History, Badly. (Arts & Letters)

Article excerpt

"Narrative Trauma and Civil War History Painting, or Why Are These Pictures So Terrible?" by Steven Conn, in History and Theory (Dec. 2002), Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main St., Maiden, Mass. 02148.

Most American schoolchildren can instantly identify the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, although even grownups might struggle to come up with the name of its creator (Emanuel Leutze) or the year of its creation (1851). But why did the Civil War--which arguably played an even greater role than the Revolution in forging the American national character--never produce similarly iconic canvases? Art historians have pointed to many factors, including the advent of photography and the more mundane--though hard to dispute--explanation that there simply weren't a lot of good artists around in the post-Civil War period. Conn, a historian at Ohio State University, suspects two other culprits, one rooted in the conventions of narrative history painting, the other reflecting changes in the larger American society.

With his famous painting, Leutze was able to evoke a powerful shared historical experience-just as John Trumbull did in his earlier Resignation of General Washington (1822-24) and Declaration of Independence (1818). These artists were working within a well-defined painterly tradition, which may have reached its pinnacle with the monumental works of Jacques David in France, and often carried echoes of the classical past to suggest parallels with a contemporary event. But by the time of the Civil War, says Conn, such narrative conventions seemed inadequate in "describing or explaining the mass, destructive phenomenon that was the Civil War." In fact, wars in the United States and Europe after the mid-19th century produced many monuments, but few paintings of real quality.

The history painters' task was further complicated by confusion over the meaning of the Civil War itself. …