"The Civil War and American Art" 10/04/12 Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861. (Collection of Fred Keeler courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The largest and most dramatic paintings in “The Civil War and American Art” don’t have anything particularly warlike in them, no cannons or gun smoke or bayonets glistening in the morning sun. Rather, there are landscapes, mountain vistas, seaside idylls and views of the night sky. Even some of the explicitly military scenes, such as one 1862 canvas showing soldiers gathered to hear Sunday prayers, is more about the grass, trees and a distant, rolling river than it is a narrative of human faith, fear and the fiery furnace.

War isn’t absent in this new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but it isn’t always in the foreground. Billed as the only major show (during this extended season of Civil War anniversaries) to examine the war and its impact on art, the exhibition includes familiar paintings by Winslow Homer showing soldiers in action, and there is an entire gallery devoted to the nascent art of photography, which brought home the carnage with such force it forever shattered ancient ideas of innocent, manly glory.

But the focus, and the argument, is about more subtle changes in art, detectable in landscape and genera painting, often by implication and suggestion rather than straightforward depiction. So the lowering gray clouds that bear down from the top of Martin Johnson Heade’s 1859 view of two boats on a placid bay is a portent of war, as are the dead trees and barren foreground of Sanford Robinson Gifford’s 1861 “Twilight in the Catskills.” A view of a peaceful park setting called Richmond Hill, near London, painted by Jasper Francis Cropsey in 1862-63, is an expat’s subtle reference to another Richmond, in Virginia, then the capital of the Confederacy.

The skeptic might argue that not every hint of uneasiness in a landscape is proof the artist was thinking about war. But in the exhibition’s catalogue essays, curator Eleanor Jones Harvey convincingly demonstrates that in the years before and during the Civil War, artists developed a distinct visual language for representing national anxiety and trauma, and they deployed it in landscape in particular because that was the art that best represented American identity, ambition and moral purpose. Just as the Westerns of mid-20th-century Hollywood can bear a remarkable amount of allegorical and interpretive weight, the landscapes of the mid-19th century were freighted with national themes.

Landscape thrived not just because Americans were fascinated by grand vistas, and analogized open territory to endless possibility, but for historical reasons, too. Walk into the Rotunda of the United States Capital and you see earnest attempts (by an earlier generation of artists) to wed American themes to the grand manner of European history painting, including John Trumbull’s classic “Declaration of Independence.” But even the best of these paintings, huge, formal and highly staged, feel a bit awkward for a half-baked democracy. And sometimes, as in John Gadsby Chapman’s “Baptism of Pocahontas,” the results are ludicrous, pretentious and inappropriate.

Winslow Homer, "A Visit from the Old Mistress," 1876, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans. (Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

History painting was out of fashion in the United States by the time the Civil War was brewing, and worse, photography was emerging with a power and precision of representation that would deflate many of the heroic pretensions on which history painting was premised. The exhibition includes several of Alexander Gardner’s Civil War scenes, including Confederate dead sprawling along a road and fence at Antietam from Sept. 19, 1862, and his view of war dead at Antietam’s Dunker Church, made the same day. In these, and even more prominently in other photographs of war’s aftermath, the corpses have bloated, and they lie in disorderly array, often with their bodies grotesquely foreshortened by the angle of the image.

Men weren’t dying as they did in a Trumbull painting, like Gen. John Warren at Bunker Hill, elegant in his white uniform and surrounded by heroic defenders caught up in a cinematic, swashbuckling drama. They were dropping and rotting and, as captured in John Reekie’s photograph of “A Burial Party, Cold Harbor,” there was little left but rags and bones by the time they got what was then called a decent burial.

Americans wouldn’t tolerate the honesty of these photographs today, when many of the assumptions about war and right and wrong that held sway in the age of history painting are resurgent in our new age of sanitized, politicized, war-at-a-distance, in which one side is always heroic and the other pre-civilized practitioners of terrorism.

But the Civil War photographs dismantled heroic assumptions not just by showing the grisly truth of war, but by changing the way we looked. Gardner’s prints often measure no more than three-by-four inches, and when seen in that format, they draw the eye into a thicket of gray information, a clutter of trees and limbs and people and fences that is the very opposite of the wall-size battle scenes that thrilled European audiences for centuries. Rather than inspiring awe and overwhelming with the pure sensuality of paint, the scale of the photograph demanded attention and focus, turning the experience of the image into something akin to what a scientist does in a laboratory.

In at least one case, there is a hint of photography’s influence on the painter’s technique during these years. Homer Dodge Martin’s “The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York,” is another landscape laden with subtle suggestions of the distant battle. The mine is a small hole halfway up a crumbling hillside, from which debris and rubble spill out and down to the calm, glassy surface of a lake. Iron from these mines, near Lake George, was used to make Parrott guns, a staple of artillery used by the Union.

But Martin’s image not only connects a wounded landscape with the destruction of war, it also captures the density of data and the busy confusion of the photograph at the level of paint. The crumbling brown earth is meticulously but frenetically rendered, not with what we might call photographic realism, but with what may have then seemed to be photographic texture. The effect is almost queasy and surreal.

The exhibition includes 75 works, and many of them will be familiar to students of 19th-century American painting. Winslow Homer, who saw the war firsthand and translated his impressions and sketches into now iconic paintings, including “The Sharpshooter” and “Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg,” is heavily represented. Of the artists who chose to capture the war itself, Homer was the most competent, but figure painting was not his forte and one is glad every time the shadow of a hat or turned head obviates the need for depicting a face.

The war is seen more crudely but artlessly in the small but well-observed paintings of Conrad Wise Chapman, the rare Confederate artist of even minimal competence. Chapman captured what he saw as the glory and what was soon the wreckage of Southern military ambition in and around Charleston, S.C. The compositions are static, with occasional reminders of the slave presence in the form of inert African American figures holding horses or attending to the menial needs of white people.

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.