Fresh Looks at the Art of the Civil War

by Stephen May

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunderstorm, 1859, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

“News of the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 caught American artists as ill-prepared for a great war as American soldiers were,” wrote Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Jr., in their classic study of Civil War art.1 At the time, American paintings focused primarily on landscapes, with some portraiture and genre scenes—none of which were particularly suited to capturing the nature of modern war. Filled with anxiety and surrounded by the impact of strife, artists sought to come to grips with the horrendous conflict that photographers made so graphic for so many. Some recognized that landscape, portraiture and genre were inadequate to the task. History paintings, the traditional European means of glorifying wars and warriors, had never taken hold in our youthful country, and seemed an unsatisfactory way to record modern combat. As the war progressed, artists evolved approaches to landscapes loaded with symbolism and representational vignettes that captured the uncertainty of everyday life for soldiers. The war also coincided with the rise of photography and printing technology that enabled wide dissemination, at least in the North, of battlefield imagery that brought home to the civilian populace the carnage and destruction of war. All these issues and more are dealt with in a challenging and revelatory exhibition, The “Civil War in American Art,” organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey. Already seen at SAAM, it is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 2, 2013.

As Harvey notes, the role of the Civil War in redefining America has been extensively chronicled, but less well understood is the profound way in which the war changed American art. “My intent,” she writes in the exhibition catalogue, “is to show that…works of art make manifestly clear that this conflict not only unleashed historical events of great moment, but also wrought great changes in the nation’s visual culture and character.”2 “The Civil War redefined America in every way imaginable…,” say Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “While battlefield photographs offered visceral shock and destroyed Americans’ romantic views of the war as a gallant adventure, the paintings associated with the war are more allusive, often envisioning the future of a reunited nation that had been grievously divided.”3

Winslow Homer, Prisoners From the Front, 1866, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The show features seventy-six works—fifty-eight paintings and eighteen vintage photographs—chosen for their aesthetic quality and ability to convey the intense emotions of the period. The principal focus is on how four Northern artists—Sanford Gifford, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church and Winslow Homer—responded to the mood of the nation, with considerable attention paid to Southern artist Conrad Wise Chapman. Harvey also stresses the searing, visceral impact of images by photographers Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and George Barnard.

By the late 1850s, the Hudson River School’s idyllic paintings of America’s natural bounty were far removed from the unsettling moral and political issues confronting the nation. During this lead-up to and throughout the Civil War, the symbolism of stormy weather, volcanic eruptions and celestial omens wasimmediately recognizable to most viewers. “Landscape imagery described the growing destabilization of the country… [and] became the emotional barometer of the mood of the nation,” Harvey writes.4 The black, threatening skies of Martin Johnson Heade’s disquieting Approaching Thunderstorm (1859) resonated with President Abraham Lincoln’s warnings of a “coming storm” over abolition and preserving the union. Meanwhile, Heade’s good friend Church was creating his masterpiece Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), combining a Heade-like brooding sky with a sunset resonating with tension and anticipation. “Church’s vibrant sunset struck viewers as a last brilliant moment before the darkness of war overshadowed the landscape,” observes Harvey.5 Gifford, who had made his mark with sunny views of the Catskills, turned somber in 1861 in Twilight in the Catskills and Coming Storm, utilizing melancholy landscapes as foreboding metaphors for America on the brink of disaster.

In Our Banner in the Sky (1861), the first “war picture,” Church used the tattered American flag that was lowered after Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, to express the nation’s mood. Copied as a chromolithograph, Church’s imagery struck a public nerve, inspiring related poems and patriotic essays. “For an allegorical landscape to step up and be so recognized signaled a public acceptance that landscape painting did in fact have a central role to play in the understanding of the war,” Harvey says.6

Southern artists encountered significant difficulties in portraying their side of the war. The devastating effect on the economy meant that few Southern patrons were in a position to purchase art, and the increasingly effective Northern blockade of Confederate ports cut off supplies for artists and photographers. The Southern picture publishing industry collapsed due to a shortage of not only ink and paper, but engravers and lithographers. One of the most talented Confederate painters was Conrad Wise Chapman (1842–1910), son of Virginia portrait and landscape artist John Gadsby Chapman. Young Chapman enlisted in the Confederate Army and accidentally shot himself in the head at the Battle of Shiloh, a wound that contributed to his mental instability. Under the direction of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and over the course of seven months, 1863–64, Chapman made sketches of Charleston Harbor and its extensive fortifications, which he transformed into more than thirty oil paintings. Rich and painterly, with strong light and shade contrasts, insightful details and deep perspectives, the paintings were “some of the most brilliant paintings associated with the Civil War,” according to art historian Matthew Baigell.7

In many ways a Northern counterpart to Chapman, Gifford (1823–80) was one of the few professional artists in the Union Army. Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland, July, 1863 (1864) shows an expansive encampment with such telling details as a man pulling a tarp over a corpse, African Americans working at menial tasks in the foreground and the artist himself sketching at the far left.

Homer’s sketches and oil paintings are highlights of the exhibition. The 26-year-old was working as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. He concentrated primarily on camp life, although he recorded a sharpshooter at work, lengthy sieges, some combat vignettes and the aftermath of battles. Homer was fascinated with sharpshooters, marksmen noted for their cold, calculating ability to gun down distant targets. His wood engraving for Harper’s, followed by his first finished oil painting, the almost identical Sharpshooter (1863), immortalized a rifleman perched in a pine tree, taking aim at an unseen and unsuspecting foe. Homer’s “revulsion over the anonymity of long-distance shooting and the impersonal qualities of modern warfare changed the way he depicted the conflict,” posits Harvey.8

In Home Sweet Home (c. 1863), Homer depicted two Union soldiers gazing vacantly into space as the camp band strikes up that wistful tune. In The Briarwood Pipe (1864), two brightly dressed Zouaves pass the time in camp carving pipes from briarwood, conveying the haunting loneliness and separation from friends and family of young men who may soon die. “The sense of tragic loss permeates much of Homer’s wartime oeuvre lending pathos and power to otherwise quotidian scenes,”9 Harvey writes. Homer’s Civil War masterpiece, Prisoners from the Front (1866), painted a full year after Appomattox, demonstrates his grasp of the challenge of reconciliation. Here, a young Union general (Francis Barlow, in whose unit Homer was embedded) tensely confronts three Confederate prisoners in front of a battle-scarred Virginia landscape. The devastated terrain carried as much significance as the figural group. “Homer’s painting presents the landscape as a casualty of war—as significant a loss as that of trust and regard between North and South,”10 Harvey writes. The suggestion is that Homer’s painting transcended the usual parameters of landscape and genre painting.

Frederic Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861, Collection of Fred Keeler

Hudson River School stalwart Jasper Cropsey, a strong Northern sympathizer, spent the early years of the war in England, where support for the Confederacy was strong. Cropsey’s large (54-by-96 inches) painting Richmond Hill in the Summer of 1862 (1862–63) recorded a popular leisure site near London. The artist included himself, prominently working at an easel in the center foreground of the composition. Cropsey’s gaze is fixed on two soldiers. “By dressing them in blue and gray,” says Harvey, “Cropsey gave his viewers license to draw parallels between the two Richmonds, London and Virginia, mentally contrasting the war-torn American scene with its Arcadian British counterpart.” “It is,” Harvey observes, “a meditation on reconciliation and a personal plea for unity.”11 After Richmond Hill sold for a record price, Cropsey headed home, arriving in New York on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He soon trekked to the battlefield, where he made pencil sketches for Gettysburg, in which the “American flag dominating the sky over the open field carries memorial overtones of loss and a hint of patriotic defiance,” writes Harvey.12

Abolition and emancipation divided the country before, during and after the Civil War. Always sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, New Englanders Homer and Johnson highlighted topics such as skin color, literacy, self-emancipation and service in the Union military. Homer’s Veteran in a New Field (1865) and The Cotton Pickers (1876) hinted that each individual would determine the future. A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876) depicted a tense, postwar meeting between a white woman and three formerly enslaved black women. In Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862 (1862), father and son look forward eagerly but warily, while the wife and infant behind look back apprehensively at the life they are leaving. The tense scene is a testament to the determination of slaves to take charge of their destinies. Similarly, Johnson’s wind-buffeted The Girl I Left Behind (c. 1870), painted during Reconstruction, suggests national ambivalence and uncertainty during those tumultuous complex years.

With the slaves freed and the Union preserved, Northern landscape painters celebrated victory with brilliant, color-filled pictures that tentatively anticipated a bright future. Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics, with its double rainbow evoking the biblical promise of salvation, and Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, glowing with sunlight, suggested the potential of an era of national healing and renewal. As this excellent exhibition demonstrates, however, our artists approached the future uncertainly, scarred by what the country had just endured. “By the end of the war,” Harvey concludes, “the emphasis within landscape painting had begun to change from a confident association of the nation’s geographic features, destiny, and promise to a psychological reflection of the nation’s conscience.”13

The then-new medium of photography changed the way Americans viewed the war, visualizing for those at home, especially in the North, the violence of combat in clear, sometimes staged views of dead soldiers. In 1863, Brady’s New York gallery drew enormous crowds with an exhibit of Gardner’s unflinching photos of human and horse corpses, capsized artillery, destroyed buildings and toppled trees at Antietam. Equally haunting are Barnard’s photos of the devastation wrought by General William T. Sherman’s “march to the sea.” Images of Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, in ruins documented the effectiveness of Sherman’s scorched-earth policy and previewed the rebuilding task. The bitterness that surrounded Reconstruction was linked to the ability of the North—having sustained little damage—to return quickly to business as usual, while Federal commitments to reviving the South were more often broken than fulfilled.

Sanford Gifford, Camp of the Seventh Regiment Near Frederick, Maryland, July 1863, 1864, Private Collection

The most important exhibition of the camera and the war, “Photography and the American Civil War,” organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photography department, is on view at the Met through September 2. It then travels to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston (September 27, 2013–January 5, 2014) and the New Orleans Museum of Art (January 31–May 4, 2014). With 200 of the best and most poignant war photos and the work of nearly fifty photographers, the show explores the evolving role of the camera in recording the trauma. While painters used a symbolic vocabulary to depict the war, photographers focused on the physical realities. “The camera performed a key role the opposing armies and their leaders could not: defined and perhaps even helped unify the nation through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making,” Rosenheim writes.14

In addition to the well-known and often reproduced views of battlefields, corpses and equipment, the Met exhibition includes intimate portraits of individual Union and Confederate soldiers. A portrait of 67-year-old Sojourner Truth shows the determined African American abolitionist pausing in her knitting to look pensively at the camera. The most graphic slave portrait is that of Gordon, who escaped whippings on a Mississippi plantation to join the Union Army, with his scarred back exposed. Copies of the photo were distributed to New England abolitionists and others to help promote the antislavery movement in the North.

Giving considerable emphasis to Brady’s “National Gallery,” the exhibition examines how studio portraits and battlefield scenes galvanized Northern public opinion. By the outbreak of the war, Brady was more entrepreneur than photographer. The works he displayed in New York often were credited to him, but were actually executed by his employees Gardner and James F. Gibson. Photography historian William A. Fassanito has written: “The views these men produced at Antietam included scenes that would open the country’s eyes and highlight a new era in the visual documentation of war.”15 Nevertheless, The New York Times wrote of the Brady exhibition “The Dead of Antietam” that “if he [Brady] has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”16 In discussing Gardner’s most famous field photograph, Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg, July 1863, Rosenheim decries the artist’s unethical act of dragging the Confederate corpse seventy-two yards “to make a more elegiac photograph.”17

Among the many photographs of Lincoln on view, two of the most interesting are by Gardner, from 1862, showing a top-hatted president meeting with and towering over General George B. McClellan during a strained meeting in the field at Antietam. In a field portrait made the next day, a visibly relaxed Lincoln talks with his Secret Service chief, Allan Pinkerton. The indefatigable Gardner was also awarded the choice commission to photograph the hanging of four of the Lincoln conspirators at Washington’s Old Arsenal Penitentiary on July 7, 1865. “Among the world’s first spot-news photographs, they are as unnerving today as they were at the time,” Rosenheim says.18


1. Harold Holzer and Mark E. Neely, Jr., Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory: The Civil War in Art (New York: Orion Books, 1993), p. 2.

2. Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2012), p. 1.

3. Ibid., p. xii.

4. Ibid., p. 19.

5. Ibid., p. 28.

6. Ibid., p. 38.

7. Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 66.

8. Harvey, p. 151.

9. Ibid., p. 156.

10. Ibid., p. 169.

11. Ibid., p. 52.

12. Harvey writes that “Gettysburg was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1866 and purchased by the Union League Club by 1868. It was destroyed in a fire at the Club…[in] 1875. An illustration of the blaze and the painting appeared in the Daily Graphic (New York), 27 April 1875, 428.” Ibid., p. 250.

13. Ibid., p. 241. The fully illustrated, scholarly exhibition catalogue, written by Harvey and co-published by SAAM and Yale, explores the show’s themes with provocative thoroughness. Challenging, insightful and invaluable, it sells for $65 (hardcover) and $45 (paperback).

14. Jeff L. Rosenheim, Photography and the American Civil War (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven, Conneticut, 2013), p. 1. “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War,” an exhibition on view earlier this year at the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Garden in San Marino, California, explored how photography shaped the nation’s coming to terms with the war’s unprecedented death toll. Many of its key images are in the Met show.

15. William A. Fassanito, Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), p. 18.

16. “Brady’s Photographs, Pictures of the Dead at Antietam,” The New York Times (October 20, 1862), p. 5, quoted in Rosenheim, op cit., p. 9.

17. Ibid., p. 96.

18. Ibid., p. 234. The 278-page, lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue, written by Rosenheim, is outstanding. Published by the Met and distributed by Yale, it sells for $50, hardcover. 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3