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The Civil War and American Art by Eleanor Jones Harvey (review)

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 4, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 106-108 | 10.1353/cwe.2014.0001

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Readers of the Journal of the Civil War Era may be surprised to know that the Civil War has been the focus of relatively little attention within the standard narrative of nineteenth-century American art history, which often follows a progression from the development of national landscape and genre painting traditions during the antebellum period to the rise of Gilded Age aesthetics in the postwar era without much probing of Civil War imagery. Indeed, while exceptions can be found in studies of early photography that assert the importance of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner's striking images of Civil War battlefields and dead soldiers, or thematic exhibitions of Civil War subject matter created by canonical artist Winslow Homer, it has been more than fifty years since a major museum has staged an exhibition on the subject.The Civil War and American Art, which serves as the catalogue to an exhibition of the same name, claims a pivotal and significant place for the Civil War within the story of American art. Author and Smithsonian American Art Museum curator Eleanor Jones Harvey uses the Civil War as a lens for understanding a range of paintings created between 1852 and 1877—among them several that do not explicitly represent wartime subject matter, such as the Catskill Mountains or Niagara Falls—in order "to tease out the war-inflected layer of meaning" and "make manifestly clear that this conflict not only unleashed historical events of great moment, but also wrought great changes in the nation's visual culture and character" (1).

Though the book itself is massive and has numerous color illustrations, it is not a survey of Civil War images or a pictorial account of the war, as previous studies have aimed to be. In her introduction, Harvey articulates the emphases of her study as landscape painting, photography, and genre painting, the latter defined as narrative pictures that claimed to represent everyday experience or daily life. In doing so, she declines to engage in a substantive way with artwork that could be categorized as still life, portraiture, or history painting, suggesting in particular that the traditional form of epic, large-scale heroic battle paintings was unsuited to representing the American conflict. She briefly discusses the representational and ethical "problems" and ultimate "failure" of history painting, but ultimately moves on in order to propose instances in which landscape, genre painting, and photography functioned to convey the complex emotions, wartime experiences, and sense of reality that mid-nineteenth-century viewers desired. Printed images such as cartoons, popular lithography, or newspaper and magazine illustrations created during the Civil War are primarily discussed in support of paintings rather than on their own terms.

Overall, the book traces a loose chronology from the years leading up to the war through the end of Reconstruction, each chapter delving deeply into a particular theme. The first explores the relationship between landscape painting by Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and others and "the metaphorical war," expressed through meteorological and geological imagery such as storms, volcanoes, and comets. Harvey convincingly meshes contemporary texts with eloquent visual analyses of paintings that are "suffused with the emotional and spiritual significance of the war if not with its daily details" (3). The second chapter turns to wartime photography, traversing well-trodden ground in an examination of Brady, Gardner, and George N. Barnard's coverage in their work of the destructive path wrought by Sherman through the South. Harvey brings a new perspective to these artists' iconic photographs by framing them within the aesthetics and conventions of landscape and genre painting. She also discusses the constraints of photographic technology, staging and artistic manipulation, and the revolutionary impact that photography had on understandings of verisimilitude. The third chapter of the book addresses paintings by artists who experienced the conflict's battlefields and camps firsthand, such as Homer, Gifford, and the Confederate soldier and painter Conrad Wise Chapman. Rather than relying on theatrics, Harvey proposes that these images "strove for the metaphorical high ground" by exploring issues of grief, ambiguity, and hope through the more mundane aspects and scenes of military life (113). The fourth chapter delves into artistic renderings of slave landscapes and the politics of...



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