Magazine article USA TODAY

The U.S.-And Its Artists-Never Would Be the Same Again

Magazine article USA TODAY

The U.S.-And Its Artists-Never Would Be the Same Again

Article excerpt

BECAUSE THE AMERICAN Civil War threatened the founding principles and the viability of the republic, the nation's entire population was affected deeply by the conflict and its outcome. The exhibition "The Civil War and American Art" considers how artists responded to the "War Between the States" and its aftermath.

Landscapes and genre scenes--more than traditional history paintings--captured the war's impact on the American psyche. The exhibit traces the trajectory of the conflict: unease as war became inevitable; optimism that a single battle might end the struggle; growing realization that fighting would be prolonged; enthusiasm and worries alike surrounding emancipation; and concerns about how to reunify the nation after a period of grievous division.

The exhibition proposes significant new readings of many familiar masterworks--some 60 paintings and 18 photographs created between 1852-77--including landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, paintings of life on the battle front and the home front by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, and photographs by Timothy O'Sullivan and George N. Barnard.

"Generally, it has fallen to history museums to organize exhibitions about wars, but the works of art in this exhibition--which include some of the greatest examples of their era--were not intended to document the war," explains Thomas E Campbell, director and CEO of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rather, they chronicle how genre painters, landscape painters, and photographers responded to the coming of the war, the fact of the war and its aftermath, and how the war changed American art."

Some of the most important and powerful examples of 19th-century American art were made in the years surrounding and during the Civil War, and yet very few of these works actually depict battle scenes. "The Civil War and American Art" examines outstanding landscapes, genre paintings, and photographs to identify their many layers of meaning. Because the conflict so deeply affected the country's character and visual culture, artists encoded its significance and implications in their works, even when they did not appear to address the war directly.

A highlight is landscapist Martin Johnson Heade's "Approaching Thunder Storm" (1859). Although Heade's painting accords with his preferred subject matter of coastlands and marshes, its message is unusually ominous. Heade portrays not the storm itself, but rather its tense preamble of blackening sky and eerie light. He initially sketched this scene about 1858 and, when he returned to the subject in 1859, he signaled the nation's mood--a sense of foreboding before the inevitable onset of a tempest.

Usually identified with grandiose landscapes, Church may have created the smallscale work, "Our Banner in the Sky" (1861) in response to the valiant defense of the American flag during the Confederate shelling of Ft. Sumter on April 12-14, 1861, the event that initiated the Civil War. On May 19, 1861, the New York Daily Tribune noted, "Mr. Church has been painting a symbolical landscape embodying the stars and stripes. It is an evening scene, with long lines of red and gold typifying the stripes, and a patch of blue sky with the dimly-twinkling stars in a corner for the Union." The artist transformed the evocative sunset into nature's memorial, the very landscape appearing to mourn the dissolution of the Union and the nation--like the edges of the flag--in tatters.

Despite the difficulties of transporting their photographic equipment and supplies to a war zone, several photographers established their reputations by capturing the grim reality of death on the battlefield. Although the resulting images were lauded for their accuracy, it is evident that the photographers invested them with multiple layers of meaning beyond documentation.

One grouping of albumen prints focuses on the human toll of the war. In Alexander Gardner's "Confederate Dead at Antietam, September 19, 1862," a split rail fence draws the viewer's attention to a row of corpses on the ground and raises a question: did the fence prevent these soldiers from escaping death? …

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