Friday, August 16, 2013

Civil War and American Art At The Metropolitan Museum.

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862.
I recently went to the Met's Civil War exhibition.  While there are many figure and genre paintings, the emphasis is on landscape, which I suppose isn't surprising given the popularity of landscape painting during the first half of the nineteenth century.  (As a landscape painter myself, I always take a special interest in seeing how the subject matter has been handled through the ages.)  What is surprising though is the inclusion of many
Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coming Storm, 1863.
landscapes with no apparent relevance to the war.  But, it is the controversial thesis of this exhibition catalog (written by Eleanor Jones Harvey)* that they should be interpreted as allegories for the political and social strife of those years; and, therefore, be considered as much about it as the paintings depicting the battlefront.  That is a thesis that I don't entirely buy----with the sole exception of Frederic Church's "Our Banner in the Sky," I think it's too big a stretch.  Although, the political and social strife surrounding the war certainly did influence the general outlook of painters such as Church, as can be seen in his foreboding and portentous landscapes of the era.  Church's "Cotopaxi," 1862 is an example.  A dramatic rendering of the violent and destructive side of nature:  It depicts an Ecuadorian volcano erupting.  Still, I don't buy the notion that these paintings should be interpreted as allegories for the war.  Note that landscape painters had portrayed nature at its most violent long before, and continued to do so long after.
John Frederick Kensett, Paradise Rocks, Newport, 1868.

In addition to Church,  the works of Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford and John Frederick Kensett are on exhibit.  All were part of an American nineteenth century art movement known as the Hudson River school.  The country's dominant movement of the time, the Hudson River school promulgated a highly idealized take on the American wilderness.  During the first half of the nineteenth century its adherents created a transcendental vision of the wilderness, which conceptually, approximated the philosophies of such contemporaneous thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson; who held that God could be intuitively experienced through a meditation on nature.  The Hudson River school artists imputed spiritual and regenerative influences to the wilderness too.  The eighteenth century notion of nature as background to a larger, human drama, gave way to paintings in which the landscape took center stage.  Nineteenth century painters tended toward the  animistic in their view of nature; their landscapes are emotive and heavy on atmospherics:  The Hudson River school painters meant theirs to be nothing short of transcendental visions.**    Favorite subjects were mountains, symbolizing a heavenward ascent, and luminous golden light, symbolizing Divine Grace.  (As someone who was a philosophy major, I've always taken an interest in the ideas----particularly metaphysical ideas----that inform art movements and find expression in their adherents' paintings.)

Sanford Gifford, The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near
Frederick, Maryland,1863.
Most of the artists who recorded the war, were primarily landscape painters by training and inclination, and they brought that sensibility with them.  As can be seen in such works as Sanford Gifford's The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland, 1863 and Albert Bierstadt's Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War, 1862.  Both are basically landscape paintings that happen to include the figures of soldiers in them.  There may be an army encampment in Gifford's painting, for example, but the emphasis is on
Albert Bierstadt, Guerilla Warfare, 1862.
the panorama of field, distant hills and the sun breaking through clouds.   Not on the human drama.  Also, notably absent are any scenes of actual combat.  The closest thing are depictions of soldiers aiming rifles, as seen in Albert Bierstadt's Guerilla Warfare.  Since many of the paintings were done on site or from studies that had been, there were logistical reasons for not depicting pitched battle, of course.  But still, one might have expected more of an emphasis on the human conflict.

Conrad Wise Chapman, The Flag of Fort Sumter, Oct. 20 1863.
The Confederate side is represented by a sole artist in the exhibition:  Conrad Wise Chapman.  According to the show catalog, part of an ex-patriot family living in Rome, Chapman enlisted with the Confederate army.  After being wounded, he was commissioned to do a series of paintings depicting the fortifications surrounding Charleston's harbor.  Like  Gifford (who was enlisted on the Union side), Chapman is more landscape, than history or genre painter.  His portrayals of Fort Sumter, for example, rely as much as anything on the changing light conditions to convey emotion.  As in Gifford's and Bierstadt's war paintings, his human figures seem almost incidental to their surroundings.  All of which isn't to say that his and Gifford's paintings aren't moving testaments, they are.  Indeed, I wish I could paint such expressive skies!  Although, I have no interest in adopting a romantic aesthetic.  (I am a realist painter and I'm not about to change my basic philosophical bent!)

Winslow Homer, Home, Sweet Home, 1863.
Of course the war had a profound and broad influence on artists of the time---no one would argue against that!  And, therefore, as is noted in the accompanying wall text, the exhibition is as much a record of its cultural impact on artists of the time as it is a record of actual events.  And the personal impact on artists can be seen in direct proportion to how much exposure each had (or didn't have) to the battlefront.  Of the landscape painters on exhibit, only Chapman and Gifford were actually enlisted.  And only Chapman had any exposure to battle.  In contrast, Winslow Homer----one of the few non-landscape painters in the show----saw the war up close for prolonged periods while embedded with Union troops at the front.  He did so in the capacity of artist/correspondent for Harper's Weekly.  And unlike the landscape painters, Homer's focus was squarely on the human drama.  Although, like the landscape painters he did not portray actual combat:  The closest he came was 'Skirmish in the Wilderness," 1864, which like Bierstadt's "Guerilla Warfare," shows Union soldiers pointing rifles at an unseen enemy.  But unlike the landscape painters, Homer's scenes of soldiers in camp actually focus on the human drama, showing the personal toll of war.   "Home, Sweet Home," for example, shows two soldiers whose postures and sidewise gazes give them a war weary and preoccupied air.  One has a letter, presumably from home.

Winslow Homer, A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876.
Also, as can be seen in some of his paintings dealing with the aftermath of the war, Homer clearly took a genuine interest in the political and social issues in the aftermath of the conflict----something that Gifford, Bierstadt and the other landscape artists didn't----or at least not in their paintings!  Homer's "A Visit From the Old Mistress," for example, suggests the difficult social relations that lay ahead for blacks and whites.  It shows newly emancipated slaves being confronted by their former mistress, who must now bargain for their labor.  The tension between them is palpable.  Homer isn't the only genre
Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859.
painter in the exhibition.  Also of notable interest are works by Eastman Johnson.  Like Homer, Johnson took an interest in social issues such as race relations in the South.  His "Negro Life at the South, 1859 is one of the more interesting, if ambiguous paintings on exhibit.  It depicts slaves of varying skin colors in their quarters, next to the master's house.  While there is some ambiguity about the scene, that some slaves were sexually imposed upon by the master is pretty clear.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the exhibition was the disparity between what was being produced by the landscape painters on view, all of whom share a basic romantic aesthetic vision, and their realist counterparts----most notably Winslow Homer and Eastman Johnson.  It is hard not to conclude that the transcendental beliefs of the Hudson River school were ill suited to the portrayal of a manmade catastrophe such as the Civil War; or to addressing the difficult social issues in its wake.  So it isn't surprising that their paintings fell out of favor over the next two decades.

*Exhibition Catalog:  Civil War and American Art by Eleanor Jones Harvey.  Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Yale University Press.  (You can peruse copies of the catalog at the exhibition, as I did.)

**Knights of the Bush:  The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape.  James F. Cooper.  Copyright 1999, the Newton Cropsey Foundation.  Published by Hudson Hills Press, Inc.

The Civil War and American Art runs through September 2, 2013.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NYC.

1 comment:

  1. These all photos are fascinating. I am keenly interested in reading history specially the civil wars. Good read!!!
    Civil War Art