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The Civil War and American Art

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An Interview with Eleanor J. Harvey

The Civil War Trust had the opportunity to meet with Eleanor J. Harvey, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The museum's new exhibit, The Civil War and American Art, explores the impact of the war on American art. Four videos accompany this article.


Civil War Trust: This new exhibit of Civil War art has received wide-spread acclaim. What was your inspiration for creating this exhibit?

Eleanor J. Harvey: What inspired me to develop this exhibition was what I came to see as the erasure of the Civil War from the analysis of American art. What I found was, unless you were working on an artist directly involved in the War, or who addressed it directly in his artworks, the war simply started, ended, and seemed to leave no footprint. After 9/11 I realized there was no way a four-year long Civil War could leave no trace on an artist’s life; my goal was to research what each artist was doing during the war, and unearth the Civil War-related layer of meaning that resides in some of the finest works of art made during those turbulent years.

Part of the reason for this erasure I think stems from the Bicentennial in 1976. We began to focus intently on American art as a valuable expression of our cultural heritage. Landscape painting in particular came to be seen as a symbol of America’s ambitions and aspirations. Because most landscape painters did not enlist in the army or paint obvious war-related paintings, they were overlooked in a discussion of the effects of the Civil War. We simply didn’t know how to account for the war in their works. That bothered me—I felt this war left its imprint everywhere: on literature, poetry, sermons, speeches, and all over diaries and letters. It made no sense to me that artists would be immune to the war.

My research uncovered extensive use of landscape—terrain, weather, and meteorology—to describe the destabilizing effects of the war. Storms rose as tensions rose with war looming; erupting volcanoes were a symbol of social unrest over abolition and slavery; meteors linked to John Brown crisscrossed the skies; Auroras signaled an apocalyptic judgment on both sides. In short, our ancestors described the turbulence of the time using language suffused with the landscape—and America’s landscape painters used that same visual vocabulary to create paintings that function on one level as the emotional barometer of the nation’s psyche.

The Civil War and American Art from Civil War Trust on Vimeo.

At the war’s outbreak were American artists well prepared to cover the Civil War as an artistic subject?

EJH: Although war loomed—and seemed imminent to many—during the 1850s, when it started it was nonetheless a shock. Artists thought they were prepared for a short and glorious war, and there are newspaper accounts of an artist who painted the backdrop landscape in anticipation of painting in the heroic details of the Union victory at Manassas in July 1861. Needless to say he did not chronicle the federal retreat, and that episode stands as a kind of metaphor for visualizing this war—it defied expectations and frustrated attempts to chronicle it in the moment. It takes time, and hindsight, to figure out who the heroes are in any war, which are the pivotal battles. I wanted to know what artists painted in the middle of the war—when there was no way of knowing how long it would last, who would win, or what might happen next. That approach—the war without hindsight—meant most of the paintings I brought together dealt with the war in a more elliptical way, responding to current events, political cartoons, and songs and poetry—often using the same visual vocabulary to describe what America was enduring.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that landscapes are heavily represented in the exhibit.  Tell us more about how landscapes were important to the artists of this time.

EJH: Landscape painting before the war was the single most prominent genre in American art. We looked to landscape paintings—and the actual features they presented—as emblems of our country’s power, prowess, and prospects for the future. Niagara Falls, natural Bridge—these icons were an important part of our core visual vocabulary. We took pride in these scenes, and found spiritual significance in the landscape—even calling American the “New Eden.” When the Civil War began, Cain killed Abel—brother against brother—and that is grounds for expulsion from that Garden of Eden. This war would make it impossible to see our landscape, and ourselves, apart from its destruction. But no one had ever researched the way in which landscape painters responded to the war—because most of them never painted a battlefield or enlisted in the army. They were viewed as sideline players, watching, but disengaged. My research—which was all grounded in primary documents: letters, diaries, exhibition reviews, speeches, sermons, poems, essays, and the like—pointed to a vast literary vocabulary in which landscape metaphors played a central role in describing a world coming apart at the seams. The paintings themselves developed from this rich matrix of documents—and the art reviews made it clear the man on the street easily transferred metaphors about the coming storm when God would run out of patience on the issue of slavery (Abraham Lincoln, 1858) to paintings of brooding storms waiting to break forth (Heade, 1858 and 1860). Those corollaries were important anchors for this exhibition.

This exhibit features a number of iconic photographs from the Civil War. Were battlefield photographers artists or were they just seeking to document the war?

Civil War Photography from Civil War Trust on Vimeo.

EJH: The three leading photographers we think of—Alexander Gardner, Mathew Brady, and George Barnard—all thought of themselves as artists, and said so, in print, at the time. Gardner wrote captions for each of the photographs in his 2-volume “Sketch Book of the War,” identifying the photographer (sometimes himself) as the artist who took his camera to the battlefield. Brady encouraged visitors to his gallery to see his work as the closest thing to the fine arts in photography, and reviews in the New York Times repeatedly called Brady an artist, and his photographs like fine art. Barnard subtitled all of his Civil War photographs in his published album “From Nature,” a phrase familiar in landscape painting to mean a scene directly observed and sketched by the artist, at first hand.

They clearly saw their work as both documenting the war and interpreting it at the same time. This was a moment when photography emerged as a powerful visual force in both of those arenas. Images of bloated, dead bodies quelled the romantic desire for paintings of the conflict—the brutality and the body count helped make this an unpaintable war while it was happening. But the photographers’ choice of camera angle and of positioning (and in one case, repositioning) the bodies in each image contributed to the sense that these are the photographic parallel to genre painting, focusing on the human drama of the war.

I’m sure that modern people would wonder why there aren’t more photographs from the Civil War. What were the limiting factors in capturing images in the field?

EJH: We may never know how many images were made or how widely distributed they were—I suspect many images were later tucked away in drawers or destroyed by later generations as unpleasant reminders of a war we wanted desperately to forget. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. went to Antietam to look for his wounded son (the future Supreme Court Chief Justice)—and was haunted by the carnage. When he reviewed Brady’s display of photographs from that battle—a display called “The Dead at Antietam”—he recoiled in horror, as they brought back vivid and unpleasant memories.

The vast majority of wartime photos were of individual soldiers, taken in camp. There are very few images of actual combat—the emulsion these photographers used required lengthy exposures to capture the likeness. Exposures of 15 seconds to a minute each meant action shots were blurred if successful at all; there was no way to capture a shell exploding or a body falling. Living subjects had to stand still to register clearly. Think about that the next time you see “casual” shots of soldiers—in each case the photographer had to instruct each person to stay still for the duration of the exposure. I think about John Reekie’s “Burial Part at Cold Harbor” and realize all of those grave-diggers had to be standing still for Reekie to capture that “action” shot.

The Brierwood Pipe by Winslow Homer 1864
The Brier-Wood Pipe by Winslow Homer, 1864
Cleveland Museum of Art (Wikimedia)

Winslow Homer is one of America’s great artists from this era. We’ve included his famous The Brier-Wood Pipe on our site. Is this just a well-executed painting of Zouave soldiers or is there a larger message here?

EJH: There is a poignant story anchoring this painting and, as is the case in so many of Homer’s paintings, multiple layers of meaning. Homer depicts two members of the New York Fifth Infantry, known as Duryee’s Zouaves. They were a crack unit known for their discipline. Their bright red and blue uniforms, derived from the French Algerian army, made them look fierce, but the bright red also matched the color of fresh blood—making it impossible to tell how badly a man might be wounded. The title of the painting derives from a poem by Charles Shanly published in Vanity Fair, about this specific regiment. The poem described the NY 5th Zouaves in camp, carving pipes from brierwood. A soldier would then see the visage of a loved one in the smoke curling up from the pipe when you smoked it, which on one level makes this a poem about homesickness.

But not long before Homer painted this work, the NY 5th Zouaves were nearly wiped out at the Second Battle of Manassas, in August 1862. Two Texas soldiers, each writing home to his family, described the carnage as looking like a field of Texas wildflowers. If you’ve ever see a Texas hillside in the spring, covered with Indian Paintbrush and Bluebonnets, you know that all you see is red and blue. These soldiers each, separately, used a powerful landscape metaphor to describe a horrific scene, holding the gruesomeness at arm’s length. This use of nature as a means of processing the war by not quite describing a scene, yet painting a vivid word-picture, occurs frequently in letters, diaries, and literature during the war years.  The connection between those letters, Shanly’s poem, and Homer’s painting, fostered a sobering meditation on homesickness and loss.

It seems that a majority of the paintings and photographs in this exhibit are from northern artists.  Were southerners also creating remarkable art from this period?

EJH: It is hard to give equal weight to the art made in the North and the South during the Civil War. The northern blockades effectively cut off the flow of art supplies, and the increased economic hardships across the South severely damaged art production and patronage—there was simply no money to support buying art over food and military supplies. William D. Washington of Virginia painted the single most influential painting of the Confederate perspective with “The Burial of Latane,” and people flocked to see it—but no one had the means with which to buy it. So instead Washington placed it on view in the Capitol in Richmond with a bucket underneath for donations to the Confederate cause.

The focus of my exhibition is the impact of the war on American art, rather than documenting the war in art. Landscape and Genre painting in the North were profoundly changed by the war; those changes are not as apparent in art made by most southern artists at this time. Ironically the vastly different conditions North and South is one of the main reasons you see so little of the South’s visual culture here. Their strongest response to the war would come decades later, outside the parameters of this exhibition. I do talk about this painting, and these issues, in the Introduction of the book that accompanies this exhibition, to help put all of this into perspective.

We loved seeing so many of the Conrad Wise Chapman paintings. Tell us more about this great series of paintings from Civil War Charleston.

Conrad Wise Chapman from Civil War Trust on Vimeo.

EJH: Conrad Wise Chapman may be the best artist of whom most people have never heard. Had there not been a war, he might well have enjoyed a flourishing career as a landscape painter; during the war he painted 31 small paintings for Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, to document the fortification of Charleston improved under his command. These are not really paintings of battlements—they are lyrical landscapes, symbols of the artist’s stubborn pride in the Confederacy. Chapman had grown up in Italy, the youngest son of American history painter John Gadsby Chapman. He had absorbed both the grandeur of the fallen Roman Empire and the gorgeous skies over open water painted by Canaletto, and brings together those images in his own small paintings. The ruins of Fort Sumter resemble those of the Roman Coliseum; Chapman seems drawn to making subtle comparisons between the fall of Rome and the fate of the Confederacy.

By the time the war was over, there was no market for these images, many of which include the Confederate flag waving defiantly. As a result they remained in the artist’s family until their purchase in the 1890s by Granville Valentine, a Richmond native. All 31 paintings now belong to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, where they are the most important body of work made by a Southern artist during the Civil War.

Moran Slave Hunt Dismal Swamp 1862
Thomas Moran, Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia, 1862, oil on canvas, Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gift of Laura A. Clubb, Image © 2012 Philbrook Museum of Art, Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Slavery and African-Americans was a popular subject for artists of the time. "The Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia" is just one of the many powerful paintings on this subject in the exhibit.  Tell us more about this painting and its symbolism.

EJH:  Slave Hunt is Thomas Moran’s only painting addressing the Civil War. We know nothing about his position on abolition outside of this work of art, but it makes a powerful statement about the perils facing those enslaved people who took liberty into their own hands. Moran based this painting on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” from the perspective of a fugitive slave, and his terror being pursued by slavers and a pack of hunting dogs.  Here a black family is being pursued by three slave-hunters and their dogs. The black man has killed one dog, and watches as two other dogs chase him and his family into the swamp. I read several slave narratives in which escapees recounted terrifying experiences of such pursuit, but who never gave up their determination to be free. Moran painted this work for an abolitionist patron in England; in 1864 he painted a second, smaller version for the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair—a public display of what I suspect was his personal position in favor of the abolition of slavery, seen through this haunting image.

Did Civil War paintings and photographs have much impact on the home fronts of the Civil War?

EJH: These paintings and photographs did make an impact at the time they were made. It varied from painting to painting, and my research focused on how each artist grappled with the war, and how the paintings he made were conceived, displayed, and reviewed at that time—to measure the impact each work had. New York was the center of the American art world, with numerous newspapers and weeklies covering exhibitions and visits to artists’ studios. Diarists like George Templeton Strong wrote about these events as well. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. made the case for the impact of the photographs—he felt many would be locked away in drawers, as they brought back the trauma of each battle. He wasn’t sure viewers could handle them—acknowledging their visceral power, and dreading their impact at the same time. That spoke very eloquently to me about how these images played out for those who came home, or stayed home.

Even when an artist didn’t intend a painting to focus on the war, circumstances would literally conscript it—Sanford Gifford’s “The Coming Storm” happened to be on view when Lincoln was assassinated. At the time, the painting was owned by Edwin Booth—a famous Shakespearean actor and brother of the president’s assassin. Herman Melville wrote a poem about this painting, comparing the turbulent storm to the state of Edwin’s mind and the grief of the nation. Overnight, this painting was recast as a visual eulogy to our fallen President. No one emerged from the war years unscathed; these paintings and photographs bear witness to that.

Gifford A Coming Storm 1863
Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coming Storm, 1863, retouched and redated in 1880, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Learn More: The Smithsonian American Art Museum