Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Civil War and American Art

Where: American Art Museum

When: through April 28, 2013

This is a large exhibit of art created during and after the Civil War.  I had never realized before that those stormy pictures of the mid 1800s were actually about the political storm raging in the country.  The exhibit commentary begins by describing the Civil War as the second American Revolution.  I could swear the War of 1812 was described in the same way in the show I saw last month in the Portrait Gallery!

One of the differences between the Civil War and the War of 1812 was the impact of photography.  Battlefield photos, which made their way back to the civilian population, destroyed the image of war as a glorious undertaking.  The horrible destruction of so many lives was laid bare.  There's really no way to idealize a pile of corpses.  The artists who witnessed the war first hand were stripped of their idea of America as a new Eden and forced to comes to grips with the idea of a nation fallen from grace.

There are so many pieces in this exhibit that I can't possibly describe each one, but several caught my eye particularly.  Sanford Robinson Gifford's "A Coming Storm," was originally owned by Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth.  It features gorgeous autumn colors, a favorite subject of mine.

The photographs of the South after the war give the decimation an immediacy that books and paintings don't.  It's hard to imagine the loss of lives and property that the war brought to that part of the country, but the photos make it real in a way that other media just can't.

Eastman Johnson's "A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves" shows a slave family riding a horse, heading towards the Union Army.  I was reminded of the "Horse Nation" exhibit I saw at the American Indian museum - horses have played their part in the lives of all who live in North America.

"The Old Mount Vernon" shows a different view of George Washington's home - a view that includes outbuildings and slaves.  I was reminded of the exhibit at the American History museum on Thomas Jefferson's slaves and their families.

A painting by Conrad Wise Chapman is part of the show.  His work appears to be the only paintings made by a Confederate soldier while in uniform.  Finally, another piece by Sanford Robinson Gifford, "Preaching to the Troops" was displayed in the Oval Office from 1976 - 1989.  Frankly, it's not the piece I would have chosen necessarily.

Verdict: Overall, this is an interesting show, although I couldn't quite figure out the method of organization.  It's not chronological; perhaps there's a subject arrangement that was lost on me.  It's a large show, so if you have only a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly.

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