Saturday, June 1, 2013

The art of war

Sanford Robinson Gifford's "Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861" 
The painting is iconic – so much so that Jimmy Carter had it hung in the Oval Office during his presidency and Ronald Reagan left it there for his two terms. A chaplain stands on a hillside before a pulpit draped with the Stars and Stripes. Troops in the motley uniforms of Civil War regiments encircle the chaplain. In the background is the capital they have sworn to defend. 

The painting, titled “Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861,” is by Sanford Robinson Gifford, an American landscape painter of the Hudson River School. Modest in size, the work is one of many wonderful pictures in “The Civil War and American Art,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this past week. My wife Monique and I saw the exhibition last month in Washington and recommend it highly.

Winslow Homer's "A Visit from the Old Mistress," ca. 1876.
That is not to say I am without quarrels with the show. On a quick tour, visitors might be most taken with the huge American landscapes of the period. The curator, Eleanor Jones Harvey, sees in their approaching storms and fiery skies a direct connection with the national tragedy of the Civil War. The pictures are majestic and captivating, but I think Harvey reads too much into them.

There is also an important element absent from the exhibition. Most American civilians experienced the Civil War visually through sketches of camps, marches and battles by newspaper artists. If the familiar photographs of Civil War dead soldiers warrant a place in this show, as they do, the best of the newspaper sketches do as well. But they are missing in action.

Perhaps the most famous of the sketch artists was Winslow Homer. He is well represented in the exhibition – not through his newspaper work but with 13 of his wonderful paintings. Some of these are familiar, including “Sharpshooter on Picket Duty,” which appeared as a drawing for Harper’s Weekly in November 1862. To see them again is to be reminded of what an American master Homer was.

But there is more Homer here. In the mid-1870s, during Reconstruction, Homer returned to Virginia to paint pictures of African-Americans in the “new” South. In composition and content, these convey a wary hope for more equal relationships between whites and blacks. As things turned out, the wariness was well-founded, the hope not so much: the Jim Crow era was already taking shape.

"Flag at Fort Sumter" by the Confederate artist Conrad Wise Chapman 
And yet Homer’s pictures are wonderful as both art and social artifact. The longer you look at them, the more you see – and think.

That is true of other painters in the exhibition, even though none of them have Homer’s gifts. One is Conrad Wise Chapman, a Confederate soldier whose works I had never before seen or heard of. Many of these he painted in Charleston Harbor while it held out against the Union siege for month after month. Chapman was a well trained artist, good at color and composition, but what makes his pictures truly interesting is their documentary value. The Museum of the Confederacy has a fine web exhibit of his paintings here.

For documentary purposes, of course, nothing beats photographs. In addition to the famous battlefield bodies in the exhibition, there are lesser known photos by George N. Barnard during Sherman’s devastating march through the South.

All in all, "The Civil War and American Art" is a three-fer. It rewards three kinds of viewers: students of the war, visitors with even a passing interest in American history and lovers of art. It will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York through Sept. 2. Its companion exhibit, “Photography and the American Civil War,” will also be up during that period.

George N. Barnard's photo of Columbia, S.C., taken from the capitol in 1865 during Sherman's raid.


  1. This is a brilliant piece of work. All the paintings looks adorable.

  2. Beautiful art! I learn a lot with your blog :)