The Civil War and American Art

In the century and a half since the Civil War, more than 75,000 books have been published about the war and its legacy. The figure speaks to the magnitude of its impact on American politics, economics, and culture. However, few of these books have examined how American art evolved as it chronicled the Civil War

The Civil War and American Art

The Civil War and American Art, by Eleanor Jones Harvey, offers a rigorously and beautifully documented look at the Civil War and the effects on the on American artistic convention. Accompanying an exhibition of impressive scope and exquisite detail, organized by and currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Civil War and American Art surveys painting and photography produced by America’s most influential artists during the war and the decade of mourning and transformation that followed.

The Civil War’s moral ambiguity and brutality conspired to displace the Grand Manner style of history painting, an idealized aesthetic style that employs visual metaphors to convey virtue and nobility. The elaborate and romanticized depictions of battle characteristic of the Grand Manner seemed out of place in a war of brothers against brothers with its bloody sieges, forced marches, scorched earth campaigns, and pyrrhic victories. It was a war devoid of gallantry. It was a war to be remembered, but not to be valorized.

As a result, Americans eschewed traditional Grand Manner history paintings for landscape and genre paintings. Americans dating back to the Founding Fathers have believed that America’s unique geography informs and reflects American character. Prior to the Civil War, landscape painters, most notably of the Hudson River School, idealized the American wilderness as the New Eden. The innocence and naïveté of the early American landscapes were replaced by dark, gritty, and even violent landscapes. In the Aftermath at Bloody Lane, James Hope paints golden wheat stalks, traditional symbols of American vitality and prosperity, collapsing under the weight of Union corpses. In Cotopaxi, Frederic Edwin Church paints a volcano erupting, the transformation of a fecund American paradise into a hellish wasteland.

Genre painting, which prior to the war amounted to little more than low-brow political comedy or saccharine depictions of American family and democracy, was elevated to the status of serious art. Not wishing to valorize fratricidal combat, artists focused on the humanity of the common solider. Genre painting proved particularly conducive to this task. In the skillful hands of artists such as Winslow Homer, genre paintings introduced humility, empathy, and even promise of redemption into the public narrative surrounding the war.

Finally, photography transformed the documentation of combat. It introduced an immediacy and authenticity to war. Americans reacted viscerally to the scenes of hundreds of bloated, mangled corpses strewn over deserted battlefields. The advent of photography was the death knell of any illusion that war was grand or noble. Americans saw war for what it was—horrifying and gruesome.

The publication of Civil War and American Art is accompanied by an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from November 16, 2012 – April 28, 2013 and The Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 27th, 2013 and September 2, 2013.

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