An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Brushes with War

Peter H. Wood, Duke University

Published: 
14 November 2013
Overview: 

Peter H. Wood reviews Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012) and the exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and then at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, through September 2, 2013.  

The Assessment (Spc. Nick Weishaar), 2012, Oil on board by Victor Juhasz. Reproduced by permission of
The Assessment (Spc. Nick Weishaar), 2012, Oil on board by Victor Juhasz. Reproduced by permission of "The Joe Bonham Project."

Created in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and organized by Smithsonian Museum of American Art curator Eleanor Jones Harvey, "The Civil War and American Art" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) was an impressive exhibition. The setting—SAAM's home in the Old Patent Office—could not have been more appropriate. Walt Whitman called the stately edifice, designed by Charleston-born architect Robert Mills, "that noblest of Washington buildings." He knew it as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War, but at the gala opening last fall I found fashionable guests strolling the marble floors where wounded soldiers had sprawled after the First Battle of Bull Run.

While waiting for the exhibition doors to open, I had the good luck to meet a gifted combat artist, retired Marine Corps veteran Michael D. Fay. He led me next door to a small but stunning exhibit he had mounted at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery, with help from fellow members of the International Society of War Artists. In "The Joe Bonham Project" (named for the soldier in Dalton Trumbo's 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun), more than a dozen artists focused their eyes on veterans wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, while most Americans were looking elsewhere.1 Through their pictures, I was suddenly visiting the patients at Walter Reed Hospital, reliving the scenes and emotions Whitman had experienced at the Patent Building.

Weapons and triage procedures change with the decades. Our capacities for taking lives, and for saving them, seem to increase over time. But the combat artist seated with his sketchpad still looks very much the same. A photo of Fay at work reminded me of a self-portrait that Winslow Homer drew during the Civil War. Thanking my new friend for the time-warp and the comparative vantage point, I hurried back up the marble steps of the Patent Office to explore the ways an earlier generation of American artists dealt with a brutal war on their own soil.

Michael D. Fay at work at a big airbase called TQ (Al-Taqaddum), Iraq, March 2006. Photograph courtesy of the artist. Life in Camp, Part 2: Our Special, 1864. Color lithograph by Winslow Homer. From Louis Prang & Company.

Michael D. Fay at work at a big airbase called TQ (Al-Taqaddum), Iraq, March 2006. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

 

Life in Camp, Part 2: Our Special, 1864. Color lithograph by Winslow Homer. From Louis Prang & Company.

SAAM guests were thrust into the Civil War exhibit space almost as abruptly as soldiers were thrust into battle at Manassas Junction over one hundred-and-fifty years ago. As the doors opened, the guests were confronted by Winslow Homer's Sharpshooter, showing a Union marksman perched in a Virginia pine tree, ready to kill or be killed. Homer's "very first picture in oils," the painting was completed in New York after his initial trip to the front during General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign of 1862. In 1863, working as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly and taking art classes at night, the aspiring artist told a friend he hoped to obtain "not less than sixty dollars" for the piece, "as that was what Harper paid him for a full page drawing on wood."

Sharpshooter, 1863. Oil on canvas by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art, 1992.41.
Sharpshooter, 1863. Oil on canvas by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art, 1992.41.
Near Andersonville, 1866. Oil on Canvas by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of the Newark Musem, 66.354.
Near Andersonville, 1866. Oil on Canvas by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of the Newark Musem, 66.354.
Prisoners from the Front, 1866. Oil on Canvas by Winslow Homer. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 22.207.
Prisoners from the Front, 1866. Oil on Canvas by Winslow Homer. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 22.207.

Edging past Homer's iconic sniper, visitors to the DC venue had plenty to see—a display of sixty art works, plus a sampling of wartime photographs, drawn from over two dozen museums and private collections. The Georgia photographs of George N. Barnard were on loan from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, while the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina provided John Ross Key's wide-angle view called Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Siege of Charleston Harbor, 1863 (1865). (Key, a second lieutenant in the Confederate Engineer Corps, was the grandson of Francis Scott Key.) Veteran museumgoers might never have seen some of the important slavery-related canvases, such as Eastman Johnson's The Old Mount Vernon (1857), from the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association; Thomas Waterman Wood's Southern Cornfield (1861), from the T. W. Wood Gallery in Montpelier, Vermont; or the luxuriant and frightening forest landscape of Thomas Moran's Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia (1862) from the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Among the many striking Winslow Homer images, one stood out as unfamiliar. It was lost for nearly a century and has rarely left the Newark Museum since its acquisition in 1966. An enslaved black woman in a doorway warily observes Confederate soldiers in the background as they herd unarmed Union captives, whose boots identify them as cavalrymen. At last, in 1987, Homer scholars Marc Simpson and Sally Mills unearthed the painting's original title, Near Andersonville. We now know the work relates to a foiled Yankee cavalry raid conducted in late July, 1864, as federal forces struggled to capture Atlanta. With General Sherman's approval, General George Stoneman's mounted troops hoped to grab headlines by pressing south to liberate Andersonville; instead, most were captured and marched to the infamous prison.

In the DC exhibition, Harvey placed Near Andersonville opposite Homer's more famous image, Prisoners from the Front, which has long been an icon of Civil War painting. Homer completed both pictures early in 1866 and they went on view in New York in April, twelve months after Appomattox. Both show recently captured soldiers, but they are opposites in almost every other sense. One presents a white, all-male military group portrait, while the other features a lone enslaved African American woman. One shows distinct Rebel prisoners front-and-center, in a balanced standoff with a federal officer, while the other places distant Union captives at the painting's edge, intermingled with their captors. One drew immediate praise and recognition, jumpstarting Homer's illustrious career, while the other disappeared into the attic of a wealthy New Jersey family whose daughter gave her life in an effort to educate freed slaves on South Carolina's Sea Islands during the so-called "Port Royal Experiment."2

In May, these oils and others migrated north to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, permanent home of many of the show's finest paintings. These include Homer's post-war masterworks—The Veteran in a New Field (1865) and Dressing for the Carnival (1877). A less familiar Met-owned work—one that Harvey "unpacks" in a suggestive fashion—is Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family (1864), by Homer's New England acquaintance, Eastman Johnson, from Lovell, Maine. (The older artist's paintings concerning race and the South often seem to be echoed, directly or indirectly, in Homer's earliest works.) In Johnson's intriguing depiction of the Blodgett family, a toy black soldier usurps center stage in an upper class Manhattan parlor. These paintings, at home at the Met, remain there now that the exhibition has closed.

Sadly, the largest art display of the Civil War Sesquicentennial expired without traveling west of the Hudson River or south of the Potomac. Most interested Americans—whether engaged by nineteenth-century art, the war itself, or some combination of the two—missed the show. For them, Dr. Harvey's related three-hundred-page volume, The Civil War and American Art, provides a different but equally absorbing experience. The weighty book, produced handsomely by Yale University Press, is carefully researched, clearly written, and brimming with illustrations. More enduring than the short-lived exhibition, this substantial tome could be the guiding text for an entire American Studies course.

Strong recent scholarship on Civil War history and on the era's relevant paintings provide Harvey with more than enough ground to cover. Consequently, many related topics are set aside at the start. No space is reserved for still-lifes, portraits, or sculpture from the period, all of which have been examined elsewhere. Likewise, invocations of the war by later generations—Jacob Lawrence's gouache paintings of The Legend of John Brown (1941), for example, or Larry Rivers' riffs from the 1960s on The Last Civil War Veteran—are left to those who have made the study of American memory a viable cultural field of its own.

This narrowing allows Harvey room to broaden her chronological focus, covering the quarter century from 1852 to 1877, and to reach beyond the stark Johnny-Reb-and-Billy-Yank themes popular during the Centennial years. Instead, she uses five well-illustrated chapters to probe other tensions. "Abolition and Emancipation" addresses black-white issues; "Wartime Photography" summarizes the interactions of painting and the expanding world of the camera. (A complementary exhibition at the Met, called "Photography and the Civil War," ran through Labor Day, 2013, and also produced an outstanding catalogue.) A third broad section of Harvey's book follows artists exploring "The Human Face of War" (relations between men and women, the battlefield and the home front), while a final chapter probes the war's "Aftermath" and changing interpretations of Reconstruction-era art.

The most original and controversial chapter of The Civil War and American Art is the first one, an extended essay on "Landscapes and the Metaphorical War." Different curators surely would have chosen a more predictable unifying theme, so some readers may feel disappointed. But others will be surprised and challenged by the stress on portrayals of land and sky, from the arctic to the Andes. Suitably, the book's engaging cover image—The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland (1863), by Sanford Robinson Gifford—highlights a respected, though little-remembered, landscape painter caught up in the war.

Guerilla Warfare. Picket Duty in Virginia, 1862. Oil on canvas by Albert Bierstadt. Courtesy of WikiPaintings.org.
Guerilla Warfare. Picket Duty in Virginia, 1862. Oil on canvas by Albert Bierstadt. Courtesy of WikiPaintings.org.

Inside, before readers reach the Table of Contents, they encounter more full-color announcements of the landscape theme. Another atmospheric Gifford painting, titled A Coming Storm (1863), spreads across two introductory pages. The artist completed the oil just as he finished his third and last tour with the New York Seventh Regiment National Guard. This painting, set far from the conflict, was owned by the admired Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth, and it gained widespread attention at the end of the war. The canvas went on display at the 1865 spring show of the National Academy of Design in New York City, only days after Booth's brother murdered President Lincoln. "Gifford's painting," Harvey explains, "became a touchstone for grieving New Yorkers who flocked to see it on display."3

Another early opening image is a vivid detail from Guerrilla Warfare. Picket Duty in Virginia, by a painter recently returned from his first trip to the West. He spent five days visiting Gifford's own "Silk Stocking" Seventh Regiment at the front in Virginia in 1861 (with fellow-artist Emanuel Leutze) and then composed his image using several stills made by his photographer brother, Edward Bierstadt. In foregrounding Guerrilla Warfare, Harvey not only heralds the links between painting and photography, she reiterates the landscape connection. For the work's creator, Albert Bierstadt, avoided the draft in 1863 by hiring a substitute and then headed back to the Overland Trail, where he rapidly became the foremost landscape painter of the American West.

Is Harvey, a scholar of American landscape art, simply imposing her specialty on a captive audience, or is there a convincing logic to her emphasis? There is much to be said for anniversary exhibitions and art books that are not created by committee, but instead take advantage of public interest to allow a well-versed expert to inflect a major overview with some of his or her own expertise and reflective judgments. Harvey's text makes convincing use of the reddening sunsets and ominous clouds that were already a standard part of the landscape genre, showing how the vocabulary of land, shore, horizon, and sky took on new metaphorical meaning in the face of social and political calamity.

The Meteor of 1860, 1860. Oil on canvas by Frederic Edwin Church. Courtesy of WikiPaintings.org.
The Meteor of 1860, 1860. Oil on canvas by Frederic Edwin Church. Courtesy of WikiPaintings.org.

Indeed, Harvey goes further, arguing the relevance of volcanoes, icebergs, earthquakes, and celestial events. When a meteor appeared in 1859, poet Walt Whitman and others associated it with the meteoric rise and martyrdom of John Brown, whose assault on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry that year seemed an omen of war. When a larger meteor penetrated the earth's atmosphere the following year, the artist Frederic Edwin Church created Meteor of 1860 (1860), an eerie canvas that captured the anxious public mood. "Landscape painting," Harvey contends, "became the emotional barometer of the mood of the nation" (19). To confirm the point, she includes Church's later painting, Aurora Borealis (1865), conceived in the difficult spring of 1864. It shows an American vessel frozen in the ice in a darkened polar landscape. "As the ice grips the SS United States, and by proxy the nation, the auroras snake across the Arctic winter sky like a grim warning from God, a bleak foreshadowing of doom" (54).

Aurora Borealis, 1865. Oil on canvas by Frederic Edwin Church. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1911.4.1.
Aurora Borealis, 1865. Oil on canvas by Frederic Edwin Church. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1911.4.1.

For the southern soldier-artist Conrad Wise Chapman, whose work is well-represented in The Civil War and American Art, the most vivid wartime landscapes featured views to and from the fortifications of Charleston Harbor. Chapman painted small-scale oils of an Atlantic sunrise over Rebel-occupied Fort Sumter and a Lowcountry sunset seen from the same military vantage point. He is highlighted in Harvey's opening illustrations with a full-page detail from The Flag of Sumter, Oct. 20, 1863 (1863-1864) in which a tattered but defiant flag and its tired but upright guard look down from the battered ramparts toward the blockading Union fleet anchored in the distance—small and silent against the skyline. (A similar lone sentry, gazing toward the horizon, appears in Sanford Gifford's painting, Basin of the Patapsco from Federal Hill, Baltimore, 1862.) Like Gifford, his closest northern counterpart, Chapman survived the conflict and continued to paint.

Not all enlisted artists were so lucky; consider John S. Jameson. Only seven of his pictures are known to exist, so he earns no mention in The Civil War and American Art, but who can guess where his career might have led, had he not died in 1864, at age twenty-two? Jameson, born in Hartford in 1842, was a prodigy in both music and art. He was already gaining recognition as a rising organist and landscape painter when he enlisted in the First Connecticut Cavalry. In late June, 1864, after several months at the front, he was captured at Reams' Station, Virginia, during the last stage of an arduous cavalry raid. Jameson was shipped to Andersonville Prison, the overcrowded, unsanitary, and disease-ridden POW stockade in southwest Georgia. By August, roughly one hundred Union captives were expiring there every day, and at the end of the month the young sergeant joined their ranks.

John S. Jameson, 1866. Portrait from the Internet Archive, OL6903201M. Saranac Waters, 1863. Oil on canvas by John S. Jameson. From The Athenaeum.
John S. Jameson, 1866. Portrait from the Internet Archive, OL6903201M. Saranac Waters, 1863. Oil on canvas by John S. Jameson. From The Athenaeum.
 

Jameson had been one of the earliest and youngest members of the Artists' Fund Society, a group of roughly fifty painters in New York who held an annual sale of their work in order to raise money to assist members in distress and to aid the families of deceased members. When word of his death reached New York City the following spring, society members voted to disburse $1,500 to Mrs. R. S. Jameson, the artist's widowed mother. At the Society's next annual meeting, "the young, brave, and enthusiastic John S. Jameson" was eulogized by president John F. Kensett, a prominent landscape artist who had worked diligently aiding the wartime work of the US Sanitary Commission. (Two of Kensett's own paintings, similar but contrasting views of Paradise Rock at Newport, are featured in the exhibition and interpreted in the catalogue.)

In his remembrance of Jameson, Kensett recalled "the rare qualities of his mind" and lamented that someone with such "exquisite taste and accomplishments, and fine promise of future excellence in his art," had—through his "patriotic sense of duty to his country"—been interred in "the loathsome fields of Andersonville." Not surprisingly, the president ended the meeting with a visual invocation, one which Harvey rightly quotes as an affirmation of her perspective on landscape art during the era of the war. "The four years of civil conflict which has covered God's green fields with fraternal blood—carrying ruin and desolation into countless homes—has ended," Kensett intoned with a painterly flourish. "The storm long threatened, which burst with such terrific and long-continued fury over the land, has given place to skies purified, to a nation redeemed and re-united."4

I closed Harvey's book with an expanded sense of the relation between environment and people, atmospherics and events, in the era of the Civil War. But my timely encounter with artist Mike Fay stirred other associations as well. I recalled painters I have known who started their impressive careers during World War II.5 From now on, I resolved, if I thank soldiers for their service, I also need to salute the artists who depict their wartime world.

About the Author

Peter H. Wood is an emeritus professor of American history at Duke University. A former Rhodes scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author of several books on early American slavery, including Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), and three recent books on black images in the work of Winslow Homer, including Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer's Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Acknowlegements

I would like to thank the Joe Bonham Project and Michael D. Fay for permission to include their works in this review. I would also like to thank the Newark Museum for permission to reproduce Winslow Homer's Near Andersonville, 1865–1866, which was a gift to the museum of Mrs. Hanna Corbin Carter, Horace K. Corbin, Jr., Robert S. Corbin, William D. Corbin, and Mrs. Clementine Corbin Day in memory of their parents Hannah Stockton Corban and Horace Kellog Corbin, 1966. Thanks as well to the Portland Museum of Art for permission to reproduce Winslow Homer's Sharpshooter, 1863, which was a gift to the museum of Barbro and Bernard Osher.

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Recommended Resources

Text

Barnard, George N. Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign. New York: Dover, 1977.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Davis, Keith F. George N. Barnard: Photographer of Sherman's Campaign. Kansas City, MO: Hallmark Cards, 1990.

Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Rash, Nancy. The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

———. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Simpson, Marc. Winslow Homer: Paintings of the Civil War. San Francisco: Bedford Arts, 1988.

Wood, Peter H. Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer's Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

——— and Karen C. C. Dalton. Winslow Homer's Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

Web

"American Art in the Nineteenth Century." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hi/te_index.asp?i=5

Harvey, Eleanor Jones. "The Coming Storm: The Civil War and American Art." Smithsonian American Art Museum Webcasts, July 10 and 31, 2012. http://americanart.si.edu/multimedia/webcasts/archive/2012/cs_teacher_institute/

"Effects of the Civil War on American Art." Smithsonian American Art Museum Webcasts. http://americanart.si.edu/research/symposia/2012/. (Includes a lecture by Peter H. Wood on Winslow Homer's Near Andersonville.)

Recommended Southern Spaces Publications

Ayers, Edward L. "The Civil War and Emancipation 150 Years On." Southern Spaces, May, 17, 2011. http://southernspaces.org/2011/civil-war-and-emancipation-150-years.

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. "A Horrible, Beautiful Beast." Southern Spaces, March 6, 2008. http://southernspaces.org/2008/horrible-beautiful-beast.

Thomas III, William G. "Turning Point for Richmond: The Virginia Historical Society's Civil War Exhibition." Southern Spaces, July 26, 2011. http://southernspaces.org/2011/turning-point-richmond-virginia-historical-societys-civil-war-exhibition.

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  • 1. A CBS interview with Michael Fay is at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57427637/sketching-veterans-recovering-from-war-so-their-stories-arent-lost/. His blog, "Fire and Ice," is at http://mdfay1.blogspot.com.
  • 2. On the first owner of Near Andersonville (Sarah Louise Kellogg) and her New Jersey family, see Peter H. Wood, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer's Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 3-10, 20-27. On the Northern teachers in the Sea Islands during wartime, see Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).
  • 3. "Had it not been for the circumstances surrounding its exhibition in April 1865 in the wake of Lincoln's assassination, A Coming Storm would have been simply another picture of turbulent weather, open to interpretation as indicative of the emotional turmoil at the midpoint of the war." Instead, the canvas became an instant emblem of the nation's emotional state. "That pathos prompted Herman Melville, by then a friend of Gifford's, to write a poem specifically about the triangulation of painting, owner, and fallen president." Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012), 63.
  • 4. Sixth Annual Report of the Artists' Fund Society (New York, 1865-66).
  • 5. A summertime neighbor, Dwight Shepler, created on-the-spot watercolors of the Normandy Invasion, and my friend Jack Garver started painting as an enlisted man while recovering in a French hopsital.