Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Civil War & American Art

I came late to 19th and early 20th century American Art.  I will have to be forgiven since I was brought up in the European tradition.  Through friends in the business and later through additional exposure I began to appreciate the American style.

I believe that if I had seen the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “The Civil War and American Art” I might have been awakened much earlier.  It is an excellent show organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with Barbara Weinberg as the Metropolitan’s curator.  At the Met it happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  There are about 60 paintings and 18 photographs in the show and for photography it proves that less is more.  These 18 photos do much more to make their point than the huge exhibition at the Museum “Photography and the American Civil War” which is showing at the same time.  One of these images is “A Harvest of Death” taken at Gettysburg on loan from the Chrysler Museum.  Another print from the Met’s collection is in the larger exhibition where its impact is lost.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The banner image for the show, if you’ll excuse the pun, is the dramatic landscape by Frederic Edwin Church where the sunset sky is configured to evoke the stars and stripes of a tattered flag. The painting on loan from the private collection of Fred Keeeler paid homage to the standard flying over Fort Sumter during the battle that started the civil war in1861.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art / Photo by Alan Thompson

Unlike photographs that record the moment many sketches and images generated by the war did not get worked up in oils before some time had passed.  Sanford Gifford’s painting “A Coming Storm” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is meant to  prefigure the war though it was probably only painted in 1863.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Albert Bierstadt, one of our most famed painters for his panoramic views of the west, paid someone to take his place when he was drafted.  This was not an unusual practice at the time.  He, therefore, had a somewhat detached view of the war.  He did, however, spend five days in mid October,1861 with troops stationed in Washington D.C. 

Here I am illustrating a painting of his called “Guerilla Warfare”.  This painting is on loan from the Century Association, a New York club with a wonderful art collection.  As a club member I love viewing the Association’s collection wonderfully displayed in its McKim, Mead & White Italian Renaissance style palace built in 1891.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Winslow Homer, on the other hand, was with the troops from 1861 to 1862 and again in 1864 as an active artist/correspondent for the magazine Harper’s Weekly. His drawings were translated into wood engravings for publication and then they served as inspiration for his paintings.  His pictures did not only show the reality of battle but the endless waiting around for the next one, which must have been even more difficult.  At least during battle you have the adrenalin to keep you going but when you are sitting around there must be far more worry and concern for yourself, your compatriots and your family.  Here are a couple of images by him.  The one shown here, lent by the National Gallery in Washington D.C, is “Home Sweet Home” and you will notice that home is a tent!

Courtesy of the National Gallery, Washington

The second image is “Prisoners from the Front” from the Met’s own collection was only painted in 1866, after the war, but it depicts a group of Confederate officers peering defiantly at the Union General who captured them.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Conrad Chapman, it is said, relished being under fire while he was sketching but he was only 20 at the time, which would account for his recklessness.  A painting that I found extremely interesting was of the Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley.  I did not even know the concept of a submersible vessel existed in the 1860’s.  This submarine sank twice during test runs losing thirteen men, before being sent into battle where it successfully sunk a Union ship with a new weapon, the torpedo, before disappearing with all on board.  It was raised in Charleston harbor in 2000.  Chapman’s painting comes from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Not all of the paintings related to the Civil War showed troops and battle.  Eastman Johnson seemed to be most interested in the slaves of the south.  In the huge canvas, “Negro Life in the South” in the collection of the New York Historical Society, he represented a slave owner peering in at her family’s slaves during their down time. The painting shows an entire community and its inter-relationships, note the couple on the left of the canvas.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In case you are in any doubt on what Johnson’s belief’s were, see this image of the fleeing slaves in “Ride for Liberty” which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia.

Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Art / Photo by Katherine Wetzel

I like the idea that the exhibition presents a point of view which seems to be very pro Union but depicts some of the realities of the deadliest war that this nation ever participated in with a death toll that a recent study has raised to 750,000.

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