The Union would use Parrott guns, made from iron from mines such as the one depicted in Martin’s image of Upstate New York, to bombard Chapman’s beloved Charleston and its harbor fortifications. Throughout this exhibition, one is struck by how a civil war both severs and forges connections, uniting people in misery if dividing them in all else. It brought men out of their homes and into the open-air theater of battle, connecting them to landscape in a very real, immediate sense. It also brought many Northerners into their first sustained contact with African Americans, whose enslavement was the cause of the war.
Some of the most disturbing and fascinating images capture race anxiety both during and after the war, as Americans confronted the aftermath of slavery and the unknown impact it would have on cultural life. An 1864 painting by Eastman Johnson (who emerges as a serious and fascinating artist in this exhibition) shows a comfortably well-to-do white family in a luxurious parlor. A young boy plays with a minstrel doll, making this representation of an African American dance on a piece of stiff paper or wood held at the edge of a table so as to produce a precipice. An innocent game enacted over the void of an unknown future has the entire family mesmerized, as twilight seems to gather outside the window.
The exhibition isn’t large enough to cover every theme. The argument about landscape is thoroughly made, and perhaps might be made more concisely, leaving room for other tangents. Some representation of the degraded state of history painting would help. The catalogue includes a reproduction of Everett B.D. Fabrino Julio’s infamous “The Last Meeting,” a painting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson just before the latter’s death.
Mocked thoroughly and well by Mark Twain, and a favorite source of amusement for visitors to the Museum of the Confederacy, which owns it, “The Last Meeting” would make very clear the reason why serious painters were turning away from history painting. One bad painting can put many good ones in perspective. But it isn’t included, nor any other similar work.
Reconciliation, which begins cropping up as a theme in paintings well before the war was over is dealt with only glancingly. Paintings such as Jervis McEntee’s 1862 “The Fire of Leaves” sees two children dressed in clothes that “evoke the uniforms of the Union and the Confederacy,” sitting together in a dark and moody landscape. Painted before George Cochran Lambdin’s 1865 “The Consecration” (not seen in the exhibition, but a powerful fantasy of Union and Confederate reconciliation), McEntee’s painting shows how deeply a premature fantasy of reunion was built into the war, making it difficult to root out the cultural toxin of slavery and resentment in the South during Reconstruction.
The theme of “getting back to normal” also crops up in landscape, and the exhibition ends with yet more giant landscape images. Visually it’s a nice envoi, and it will suggest to alert visitors a theme explored in the catalogue but not obvious from the exhibition: the extent to which making and preserving landscape, in the form of national parks and the fantasy landscapes of our urban preserves, became the focus for many of the energies animated by landscape painting before the war.
But the tone isn’t quite right. Reconstruction failed, and its failure brought at least another century of misery for many African Americans.
Perhaps a hint of the mythologizing of the war at the half-century anniversary, or some brief clip of the war from the 1915 film “Birth of Nation,” or some reminder of the panorama paintings which turned the war into entertainment for the bored, ignorant and idle in the late 19th century, would help. That would shift the emphasis from art to history, which the curator might reasonably resist. But it would remind us of the bad and the ugly from this period, which have arguably lasted longer and had more impact than the more nuanced efforts of artists to capture the subtle traces of war in the fascinating images seen in this exhibition.
The Civil War and American Art
is on view through April 28 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. For more information, visit americanart.si.edu.