|By Carole Deutsch
NEW YORK, N.Y. — A Civil War Art exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863.
The exhibit reflects a never-before-examined perspective on the emotional and psychological impact of the war on individuals and the country as a whole. People of that day could not face the grim path that lay before them head-on.
In one moment they were clinging to the hope of a grand and triumphant outcome; and in the next, they were dazed with sorrow and fear. They dared not speak the unspeakable or think the unthinkable. It shook them at their core, and the foreboding of the heart was illustrated in metaphorical images through the art of the period.
Some of the most important 19th century American art was made during the Civil War. However, few of these works actually dealt with the graphic and outwardly disturbing elements of the war.
Battle scenes and bloodshed were not often portrayed; instead, landscapes with darkened skies, images of ominous impending storms, a lone woman facing sadly into a headwind, or a bright light shining through a tattered flag were all symbolic of the mindset of the day that embodied both hope and hopelessness.
Few seem to understand this as deeply as Eleanor Jones Harvey, Chief Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who organized the exhibit for the Met.
“What motivated me was the realization that in the 19th century, the Civil War was not artistically represented – for the most part it’s just not there,” she said.
“This directly addresses the mental attitude of the people at the time who perceived it as a black mark and treated it like a dirty secret. They did not speak directly to the issues that confronted them on a daily basis but spoke around the issue. In the larger narrative the world as they knew it was coming apart at the seams, but they dealt with it in evasive terms.”
Harvey added, “Writings from the time commonly said, ’I do not have the words.’ They used a nature based vocabulary; comets and auroras were ’signs of God’s displeasure with the tolerance of slavery.’ Lincoln’s death was referred to as ’the earthquake in the night.’ Art was reflective – how do you paint the unpaintable?”
The Civil War and American Art exhibition is comprised of approximately 60 paintings and 18 photographs created between 1852 and 1877 and is represented by paintings of life on the army campgrounds by Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson, landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, and works by other renowned artists of the era, as well as photographs by Timothy H. O’Sullivan and George N. Barnard.
Highlights include Our Banner in the Sky, by Frederic Edwin Church, which was painted in response to the heroic defense of the American flag during the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12-14, 1861, the tattered edges of the flag reflecting the shattered nation.
A Coming Storm, by Sanford Robinson Gifford, captured the turbulence of the period and is particularly eerie because it was owned by Edwin Booth, the brother of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Prisoners from the Front, 1866, by Winslow Homer is a graphic depiction of a confident, well-clad Union soldier about to take a ragged group of reticent Confederate soldiers as prisoners on a devastated battlefield at the end of the war.
Another Winslow Homer painting, Home, Sweet Home, shows two Union soldiers pausing before a makeshift tent – their “home” at the front.
Conrad Wise Chapman’s The Flag of Sumter, portrays a war-torn Confederate flag flying over Fort Sumter having withstood repeated Union attacks, a possible symbolism of the artist’s commitment to the Southern cause as a Confederate soldier. Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves is a gripping portrayal of a black family on a galloping horse, desperately attempting to reach the Union lines, and Eastman Johnson’s haunting painting of The Girl I Left Behind Me are all part of this profound and thought provoking exhibit.
Harvey said her hope for the outcome of the exhibit.
“The lesson in the exhibition is about understanding the impact of our founding principles, not as dry historic fact, but as what we stand for as a culture and as a country,” she explained. “It should leave us with a feeling of complete vulnerability and determination to make it right. The 150th Gettysburg anniversary is the right time for this cultural literacy. There is rhetoric that is worth living up to and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech are worthy of our resolve.”
A related exhibit of Photography and the American Civil War is on view in The American Wing, presenting more than 200 of the most poignant photographs of the American Civil War, which have been brought together for this exhibition.
The Civil War and American Art is on view at the Robert Lehman Wing, court level and first floor. Both exhibits will be at the Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 2. For information, visit www.metmuseum.org or call (212) 535-7710.