DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Civil War and American Art

Harvey deepens viewers understanding
When Eleanor Harvey began planning the major Civil War and American Art exhibition now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, she wanted to try to answer 2 questions. First was, how as an artist, would you grapple with the war without the benefit of historical hindsight? Then there was the question,  since the focus of the show would be on landscape painters, how would the war be reflected in such works?

"I have been thinking, breathing, and hallucinating the Civil War," Harvey recently told a large group of art enthusiasts who joined the senior curator for a gallery walk and talk about the new exhibition.

Harvey said landscape painting was a central focus in pre-20th Century American art. "It was a case of we know God loves us because we have Niagra Falls and the Natural Bridge and nobody else does," she said.

The Civil War introduced almost unimaginable daily horrors into American life. So that posed a particular problem for painters. "There was no market for paintings of Americans killing other Americans over the fireplace," Harvey said. "It was so horrific the artists wanted to hold the carnage at arms' length."

In addition, the Civil War was the 1st war to be photographed from start to finish. Since cameras weren't fast enough yet to capture battle action, photographers like the famous Matthew Brady were reduced to producing images of the aftermath of bloody battles. "And after you have seen that, there is nothing to romanticize about war," Harvey noted.

So the artists adopted a whole realm of visual symbols to portray their take on the times. "They had to find a vocabulary in their idiom. They were riffing off what was going on in the war. These paintings wouldn't have been painted at any other time," Harvey said.

The curator explained that in the 19th Century "people went looking for the meaning in art." And for more than an hour, Harvey introduced many of those veiled meanings portrayed in the works she had selected. For example, a pre-Civil War painting entitled "The Coming Storm" was actually "a universal metaphor for the inevitability of war." Then there was an artist's rendition of an actual meteor that was visible over New York for 35 seconds. That was tied in to both the rise of abolitionist John Brown and the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as a great American leader.

The exhibition is arranged in themed sections. One contains a series of paintings by a Union soldier and a series of similar works by a Confederate. Another is devoted to war photography.  Yet another deals with the issues of black life and slavery. Then there are sections on the war's aftermath and Reconstruction.

The final work in the exhibition is also the largest. It is a huge portrayal of land in the American west. "This was the next new Eden. People were hoping at the end of the war that we had not lost God's blessing. They wanted to leap over the blood-soaked East. The new hope was in the West," Harvey said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips.
There are many ways you can enhance your understanding while viewing an art exhibition. You can read the posted information. Some exhibits offer guided audio tours. Now, there are even audio tours you can access from your cell phone. But there is no substitute for the give and take of a tour conducted by the actual curator who put the project together. We have been fortunate while in DC to have had the opportunity to undertake such tours. Harvey's was one of the best we ever encountered. In a word, it was brilliant and the information she provided was invaluable to truly understanding the work before us. You can have a chance to repeat our experience. Harvey will be conducting another gallery walk and talk on April 11. If you will be in the DC area then, make sure to mark that date on your calendar.

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