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02 Introduction

02 Introduction

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—Walt Whitman
Ii
I  
 
The real war will never get in the books.
n April
1861
America went to war with itself. At stakewas the viability of the republic and the premises uponwhich it had been founded. The war’s causes were mul-tiple and interwoven into the fabric of American society.From
1859
, when it was clear war was imminent, through
1876
, when the nation sought closure to the conict at the
Centennial, the Civil War was never far from any-
closely at specic works of art, we can better under
-stand how Americans grappled with the impact of the
war in the moment, without the benet of hindsight.My purpose is to tease out the war-inected layer of 
meaning in some of the most powerful paintings andphotographs made during and immediately after thewar years. My intent is to show that these works of 
art make manifestly clear that this conict not only
unleashed historical events of great moment, but alsowrought great changes in the nation’s visual culture andcharacter.Surprisingly few American painters engageddirectly with the war as it was being fought. There waslittle market for depictions of Americans killing one
another, and artists found it difcult to immediately
identify heroes and pivotal battles. Without the luxury
of time and reection, these artists approached the
Civil War in a more elliptical manner. In some cases the
paintings are not specically about the conict; nev
-ertheless, the war left an indelible mark on artist andsubject alike. To understand the Civil War’s effect onAmerican art, we must look beyond the Grand Mannerof history painting as it was touted in the European artacademies. With little to glorify in this tragic fratricide,one’s thoughts. Walt Whitman be-moaned that the “real war”would never make it intothe books. By the “realwar” he meant the sto-ry of the war as it wasexperienced by those whofought it and by those whoselives were forever altered by it. The history bookshave told and retold the stories of the war as it unfolded
on the battleeld; contemporary poets and authors nar
-rated it from various perspectives. However, most artistscould not agree on how best to capture the universal
qualities of the conict in the moment. The moral
ambiguities over the war’s causes and the often brutal
tactics used to advance the conict undermined the
expectations of history painting, based as it was on he-roic action conducted for a righteous cause.
1
But whatdo you paint during the war when there is no way of knowing who was winning, how long it might last, andwhat might happen next?This book focuses on the effects of the Civil War onAmerican landscape and genre painting, and on the newmedium of photography, considering what artists choseor avoided as their war-related subjects. By looking
 
2 
the cIvIl war and amerIcan art
we instead consider landscape and genre painting, whilefactoring in photography. Photography and telegraphysped up the transmission of graphic information aboutthe war. Images of dead Americans, although not widelycirculated as we think of it today, were on view in NewYork and Washington throughout the war at MathewBrady and Alexander Gardner’s galleries. Reviews of these photographs indicated that there was little left to
romanticize after absorbing rsthand accounts of battle
-
eld carnage.The lens through which I rst approached the Civil
War was landscape painting. Its early practitioners be-lieved, as did the Founding Fathers, that the unique fea-
tures of the American landscape reected the growth of a specically American character. More than just our in
-dividual lives were shaped by the rocks, soil, waters, andclimate of this land. The emerging disciplines of geology,meteorology, and botany were a source of widespreadfascination in America and contributed to a rich language
vested in scientic metaphors. The idea that environ
-ment shaped culture was gaining traction in art and inliterature, indeed in the very way we spoke and wroteabout our experiences. In
1837
Ralph Waldo Emersondelivered a speech he called “The American Scholar,in which he built on the precepts of his essay
 Nature 
. Heexpressed that a truly American culture would emergethrough our relationship with nature. Emerson concludedthat in America, “The ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at lastone maxim.”
2
During the rst half of the nineteenth cen
-tury, the Hudson River school dominated the New Yorkexhibition halls and presented the American wildernessas a New Eden. The Southern landscape played a lessvisible role in developing this paradigm, driven largely
by the greater inuence of Northern collectors and their
preferences in the art market. During the war years,Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and
 John Frederick Kensett absorbed aspects of the conictin their landscape paintings; after the war, they wouldnd it impossible to go back to that earlier idiom. The
Civil War helped reshape the cultural meaning of land-scape painting in America.
The rst chapter considers the impact of the waron landscape painting and specically on the artists
whose reputations were vested in the prewar HudsonRiver school ethos. Church and Gifford channeled thenation’s mood as well as their own, layering subtle re-verberations of the war in otherwise unrelated subjects.Church had painted the Ecuadoran volcano Cotopaxiseveral times since his two trips to South America, butin his
1862
painting (see cat.
6
) he rst portrays thissouthern paradise in full eruption, on re and coming
apart at the seams. Reviewers at the time noted theviolence in Church’s painting, and, mindful of the war,they expressed the hope that when the clouds of ash
reminiscent of cannon smoke nally cleared, the sun
would again shine on a peaceful nation. Painted in
1863
,Gifford’s
 A Coming Storm
(see cat.
11
) spanned two of the artist’s summers in uniform. He returned to his be-loved Catskill Mountains each fall to restore his equi-
librium; however, in this stormy scene, he captured the
turbulence of the period. That blackness would inten-sify in
1865
, when the painting became associated withLincoln’s assassination, in large part through its owner-ship by John Wilkes Booth’s brother, the Shakespeareanactor Edwin Booth. Through circumstance, reviewersclaimed this picture symbolized the nation’s grief.Literature of the period in both the North and theSouth reinforced the use of landscape metaphors to as-similate the war and its impact. Prominent Northern au-thors and poets Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne,Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain,and Walt Whitman, along with writers for the
 Atlantic  Monthly
,
 Harper’s Weekly
, and a variety of newspapers,all invoked meteorology and geological processes toconvey the sense of life coming loose from its moorings,of a nation morally adrift. For most Americans in both theNorth and the South, geographical and meteorologicalmetaphors were a common language for comprehendingthe violence of the war and its uncertainty. Henry WardBeecher’s sermons evoked storms as an image of im-pending crisis and spiritual tumult. Frederick Douglassspoke for many blacks and white abolitionists when hedescribed slavery as a smoldering volcano ready to erupt.Sunsets, comets, and auroras were malleable portents of disaster or of imminent victory for both sides. With the
conict described everywhere in these terms, why then
would landscape painters have remained immune to that
 
IntroductIon
 3
 
sensibility? A closer look conrms that many of their ma
- jor works are suffused with the emotional and spiritual
signicance of the war if not with its daily details.
By the time war broke out, the most vibrant art mar-ket was in New York City, centered around the NationalAcademy of Design and clusters of artists’ studios nearby.Depictions of the Civil War displayed a decidedly
Northern view of the conict. Not only was the econo
-my more stable in the North, but artists’ supplies weremore readily available, and the artists’ favorite hauntswere well out of harm’s way. Many Southern patrons,including Confederate sympathizers living in the Northor in the border states, left for England to ride out the
conict, further dampening the market for paintings
promoting a Southern point of view. In Richmond andCharleston, two of the major Southern markets, patron-age dried up as the war dragged on, and even in New
Orleans there was little trafc in war-related paintings.
Few works by Southern artists were seen publicly out-
side the city in which they were made; even fewer weremade by artists who witnessed the conict rsthand.
As such, the artists who addressed the Civil War andreceived recognition for their efforts tended to beNorthern artists, many of whom enlisted or accompa-nied the Union army at some point. Their interpretationof the war provides the backbone for this book, as theirworks shaped the prevailing point of view both duringand after the Civil War.The market for American art simultaneously ex-pressed a craving for war-related subjects and a rejectionof them when they did appear. One of the driving forcesbehind this ambivalence was the new medium of pho-tography. The second chapter considers how photog-raphy placed a new and powerful variable on the table,permitting what appeared to be direct documentation of the aftermath of war. The photographers who marchedwith or followed behind the army took pictures thatforever changed the way Americans thought of the con-
ict. Roger Fenton had photographed the Crimean War
in
1855
, but his work focused on the landscapes wherebattles had been fought. Daguerreotypes exist fromthe Mexican-American War, but they were not widelyviewed until this century.
3
Battleeld photography
proved an unwelcome reminder of the war’s physicaland emotional costs. In
1862
, Alexander Gardner
provided the nation with its rst glimpse of bloatedcorpses strewn across elds, the gruesome aftermath of 
battle. The visceral impact of those photographs wasboth fascinating and disturbing. Mathew Brady placedGardner’s images from Antietam on view in his NewYork gallery, which was adjacent to the Tenth StreetStudio Building and the National Academy of Design.
Undoubtedly a signicant number of New York artists
and their patrons saw them, hanging in close proximityto so many artists’ paintings. George Barnard chronicledWilliam Tecumseh Sherman’s campaigns across theSouth and, like Gardner, arranged an elaborate albumthat provided his audience with haunting images of de-struction. The advent of photography introduced a levelof immediacy even the daily newspapers and illustratedweeklies could not match. Photographs conveyed mate-rial facts and gruesome details with dispassionate clar-ity. They announced a level of verisimilitude impossibleto convey in print or on canvas.That claim to unmediated accuracy initially gave
battleeld photography an unmatched reputation for
truth.
4
 
The New York Herald 
expressed frustration with
delayed and conicting information from the front.
The editor proclaimed, “The place in town best worthvisiting just now is Brady’s gallery. There, one has anopportunity of witnessing the most exciting incidentsof the campaign without the fear of a stray bullet or theequally uncomfortable sensation of panic. The onlyreliable records of the war are to be found at Brady’s.On no other can dependence be placed. The correspon-dents of the rebel newspapers lie, the correspondentsof the Northern journals lie, the correspondents of the
English press lie worse than either; but Brady never
lies.”
5
Gardner promoted photography as the arbiter of truth, stating, “Verbal representations of such places, or
scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but
photographic presentments of them will be accepted byposterity with an undoubting faith.”
6
But authenticitywould not be the arbiter of success in capturing the CivilWar. The most effective works of art, be they paintings
or photographs, transcended battleeld realism, and
the artists who made them invested their subjects withuniversal qualities of human suffering or hope.

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