The Civil War and American Art – Reflecting Cultural Change

The Banner in the Sky 1861 by Frederic Edwin Church – Oil on Paper on loan from Private collection Metropolitan Museum of Art

A direct response to the valiant defense by Union soldiers of the America flag during the shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12–14, 1861 by Confederate soldiers from the southern states of America, was encapsulated in a small-scale patriotic image, one that today still buoys the American spirit during times of war and hardship.

Entitled Our Banner in the Sky painted by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) a man considered as a student as having ‘the finest eye for drawing in the world’, offers a stirring image of the landmark event that initiated the American Civil War.

On May 19, 1861, the New York Daily Tribune noted, “Mr. Church has been painting a symbolical landscape embodying the stars and stripes. It is an evening scene, with long lines of red and gold typifying the stripes, and a patch of blue sky with the dimly-twinkling stars in a corner for the Union.”

The artist transformed the evocative sunset into nature’s memorial, the very landscape appearing to mourn the dissolution of the Union and the nation, which was now like the edges of its flag – in tatters.

Winslow Homer The Cotton Pickers, 1876 oil on canvas 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA,

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) at New York in 2013 offered an exhibition The Civil War and American Art.

Its presentation coincided with the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863), which was the turning point in the war that lasted from 1861-1865.

The show was about revealing why the leaders in power believed a Civil War was inevitable, how the pathway towards it happening was already laid out and that just wishing it wasn’t so was not helpful. There were just too many factors already in play and above all the powerful idea embodied in the American constitution that life, liberty and the pursuit of  happiness was at stake and should be available to all.

The Cotton Pickers by Winslow Homer (1836-1910) tells a powerful story. The two young African-American women working in a cotton field were slaves before the war an issue that was at the heart of the terrible conflict.

However by the December of 1865, six months after the war ended while they may have still been working in the cotton field the difference was that they had obtained their freedom when the 13th Amendment to the American constitution was sent to the states for ratification. With the passage of the amendment through the House of Representatives, the institution that had indelibly shaped American history was eradicated.

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, 1862, oil on board, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. The Paul Mellon Collection, Photo: Katherine Wetzel, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The exhibition included landscapes, paintings of life on the battlefront and home front and photographs that were very real, complimenting nother major show The Met; Photography and the American Civil War.

The idea was to ensure that American visitors and tourists alike will be able to gain a better understanding of the impact of that conflict on the contemporary lives of the time and how in the long term it would also affect the growth of the American psyche, its culture and art forms.

America had grown vastly both in economic strength and cultural attainment during the eighteenth century, which had brought about a steady expansion of immigrants from Europe. Although their hardships had been enormous, restless settlers had kept coming, pushing further inland ensuring that remoteness became an aspect of the character of life itself in a country of seemingly unending reach.

On such a continent natural conditions stressed the importance of the individual as it does here in The Ride for Liberty by Fugitive Slaves, which was painted in 1862 by Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) stresses how important freedom for all really is and also poses the inevitable question according to Professor D T Ray of the City University of New York ‘Did Abraham Lincoln ‘free the slaves or did they free themselves’, as it captures the gripping saga of a family escaping enslavement during the first year of the war.

Winslow Homer Home, Sweet Home, 1863 oil on canvas 21 1/2 x 16 1/2 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1997.72.1 Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

The show was all about considering the trauma of war and its effects on both the mind and body as surveyed through 60 landscape and genre paintings, as well as 18 photographs, which were created between 1852-1877.

It was all about how current events impacted on making a decision to go to war in the first place, one that would inevitably change so many lives and ideas forever.

During the Civil War brother fought brother on a bloody battlefield, using the specialized equipment of 19th century warfare.

750,000 lives were lost as the new American nation became involved in a bloody internal conflict as it attempted to grow a ‘united’ vision of itself. 18th century enlightenment, it seems, had a very high price to pay as everyone wrestled with ideas of conscience, class, race, human frailty and societies mores and concerns.

Among the soldiers on both sides of the conflict were several prominent artists and they and the photographers at the time were influenced by a strong ideal that their work should also provide an accurate record of a particular person or event in a commemorative sense, and therefore be morally uplifting or spiritually reassuring.

Scenes of camp life such as in Home Sweet Home by Winslow Homer illuminated the physical and psychological plight of the soldiers, who endeavoured to arrange their tent homes by attending to simple domestic civilised details, such as serving biscuits on a plate and doing their own cooking and washing. Although in fact it was a home away from home it was certainly not one that could be called ‘sweet’ by any definition.

Artists also encoded different symbols and messages into their work, even when it did not appear to address the Civil War directly. The Romantic Movement in Europe that was also in play to some extent also affected some artists, including American landscapist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).

Approaching Thunder Storm 1859 by Martin Johnson Heade

His Approaching Thunder Storm (1859) portrays not only the storm itself, but also provides us with a view of a blackening sky full of eerie light and an opportunity to feel, as the lone man with his dog sitting on the side of the lake is no doubt doing, the great sense of foreboding that comes before the inevitable onset of such a tempestuous event.

It was about endeavouring to help everyone understand that while optimism prevailed everyone was still hoping against hope it would be only one battle that would bring closure to conflicting ideas and passionate beliefs.

When the realization that this was not going to happen, or that it would not be quite that simple hit home, how it caused so many people to reflect on how their innocence and the world they once knew was now lost to them forever.

Eastman Johnson The Girl I Left Behind Me, 1870-75 oil on canvas 42 x 34 7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Museum purchase made possible in part by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice in memory of her husband and by Ralph Cross Johnson, 1986.79

The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) is a passionate portrayal of inner intensity, the girl is a ‘romantic’ heroine, her hair blowing freely in the wind while awaiting the war’s outcome and return of the young man who has stolen her heart.

It’s all about the struggle of passion and her imposition of will on a desire to survive to see that happen. The books are helping to keep her spirits high and keep her occupied so that the time will pass as quickly as possible.

Addressing the concerns about how after such a conflict that the large and very grievous wound that had been at best only cauterized, that the American people would learn to trust each other again and champion the reality of what liberty and freedom is really all about to themselves and to the rest of the world, is a tall order, but a challenge the members of America’s first artistic fraternity The Hudson River School accepted.

They were stylistically and socially of one mind, belonged to the same clubs and many of them worked at the first purpose-built art space in New York city.

Frederic Church, along with his contemporary artistic rival Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), would stand out among their peers and become the most successful of The Hudson River School’s painters, at least until the turn of the 20th century.

That’s when it went into decline, buried under a monument of criticism for its scenic and monumental aesthetics’ as the new United States during its reconstruction, shifted its artistic orientation from the original mothering culture of Britain to expand their horizons, embracing that of Europe.

Albert Bierstadt Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War, 1862 oil on panel The Century Association, New York, NY

At that time the appeal of figure painting was also diminishing the role of the English landscape as first and lasting impressions of a new society came into focus with French artists leading the way.

All around us every day visual images of art and architecture reflect the very essence of our culture, its attitudes and philosophies its fashion and passions.

From the triangular pediment atop classical columns to the cool beauty and airy sense of space in an austere white walled modernist villa, from a portrait painted during the enlightenment  to an impression captured by modernists, each work represents the society and age that gave them form.

As artists and architects elevate the commonplace, art and design inspires our imagination and gives birth to innovative ideas.

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California 1865 by Albert Bierstadt Birmingham Museum of Art Alabama

One of the most captivating images was of the masterpiece by Albert Bierstadt Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California painted in 1865 that captures the glacial valley in the western Sierra Nevada mountains.

This wonderful work, which was on loan for the exhibition from the Birmingham Museum of Art, addressed the nation’s hopes for the future. It revealed how the awesome landscape of nature human beings and their problems are reduced to a state of seeming insignificance in the power of nature.

He painted it on a large canvas five by eight feet, seeking to draw his viewers into the picture where they could experience this virtual paradise garden for themselves, and the public loved it.

The sun’s golden rays gently bathe the unspoiled wilderness of this majestic landscape, which, unique among Bierstadt’s many paintings of Yosemite Valley is devoid of either animals or humans. The sun is flooding the valley’s rock formations with the warmth of its light, singing a song and telling a story about a time and place often dreamed about but never experienced before.

This image is really of a new Garden of Eden, one that promises renewal and healing after the trauma of war and sectarian strife and it became very well known.

The fact that it also was rescued in 1871, when its owner Uranus H Crosby’s Opera House was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire only added to its appeal and allure.

After his tragic death it also celebrated President Abraham Lincoln’s decision in 1864 to set this beautiful territory aside as a State Park so that it would for all time help Americans to ‘refresh their spirit’ and to reclaim their lives from conflict.

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum, commented: “Generally, it has fallen to history museums to organize exhibitions about wars. But the works of art in this exhibition—which include some of the greatest examples of their era—were not intended to document the war. Rather, they chronicle how genre painters, landscape painters, and photographers responded to the coming of the war, the fact of the war, and its aftermath, and how the war changed American art.”

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

Conrad Wise Chapman The Flag of Sumter, October 20, 1863, 1863-64 oil on board 11 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA, 0985.14.37l Photography by Alan Thompson

The Civil War and American Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Exhibition Dates: May 27–September 2, 2013
Exhibition Location: Robert Lehman Wing, court level and first floor
Press Preview: Monday, May 20, 10:00 a.m.-noon

List of The Hudson River School Artists


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