The Civil War and American Art

By O'Leary, Elizabeth L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Civil War and American Art


O'Leary, Elizabeth L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Civil War and American Art * Eleanor Jones Harvey * Washington, D.C., and New Haven: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Yale University Press, 2013 * xviii, 318 pp. * $65.00

Eleanor Jones Harvey's The Civil War and American Art offers a meticulously researched and richly illustrated examination of some of the nation's most compelling paintings and photographs made during and immediately after the Civil War. Written to accompany a major exhibition of the same name organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (where the author serves as senior curator), the book nevertheless stands alone as a significant contribution to nineteenth-century American cultural studies. In order "to tease out the war-inflected layer of meaning" in the rich material, Harvey guides the reader through close visual readings while offering contextual support from history, literature, politics, music, science, and religion.

Early on, Harvey admits an unavoidable imbalance between southern and northern art, with the number of extant works-and the majority examined in the book-favoring the latter. Southern artists, she explains, were challenged by a devastated economy that shut down the art market, major patrons who relocated to Europe during the war, and a scarcity of art and photographic supplies caused by the federal naval blockade. Two of the best-known southern canvases appear in the introduction in a brief discussion of history painting: William D. Washington's iconic The Burial of Latané and Everett B. D. Fabrino Julio's The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson.

The book is divided into four essays, which explore landscapes, photographs, genre scenes, and images addressing abolition and emancipation. In the first chapter, Harvey points out that landscapes served as a representation of American life and values. She argues, therefore, that anxiety and foreboding about the war was frequently manifest in "coming storm" paintings by such artists as Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane and that the bloody violence of combat found resonance in such canvases as Frederic Church's volcanic Cotopaxi. …

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