“The Civil War and American Art”

Conrad Wise Chapman, "Fort Sumter, Interior, Sunrise, Dec. 9, 1863," oil on board, The Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, Photography by Alan Thompson

How did American artists respond to our greatest national crisis? A major exhibition plumbs our highest ideals and deepest concerns.

How did America’s artists portray the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath? As part of the 150th anniversary commemoration of the war, the American Art Museum is presenting the only major exhibition to examine the impact of America’s bloodies conflict. Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford—four of America’s finest artists of the era—anchor the exhibition, “The Civil War and American Art,”  on view at the museum’s main building in Washington, D.C., from Nov. 16 through April 28, 2013.

“The Civil War and American Art” follows the conflict from palpable unease on the eve of war, to heady optimism that it would be over with a single battle, to a growing realization that this conflict would not end quickly and a deepening awareness of issues surrounding emancipation and the need for reconciliation. Genre and landscape painting captured the transformative impact of the war, not traditional history painting.

“This exhibition will show how our artists responded in the moment to a great national crisis and how it changed our ambition for America’s civilization, reinventing the Founders’ ideals for a new age,” said senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey. “The landscapes and genre paintings in the exhibition gave voice to our highest ideals and deepest concerns during the war that has been called the ‘second American Revolution.’”

The exhibition features 75 works—57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs. The artworks were chosen for their aesthetic power in conveying the intense emotions of the period. Homer and Johnson addressed issues such as emancipation and reconciliation. Church and Gifford contended with the destruction of the idea that America was a “New Eden.” Most of the artworks in the exhibition were made during the war, when it was unclear how long it might last and which side would win.

The exhibition also includes battlefield photography, which carried the gruesome burden of documenting the carnage and destruction. The visceral and immediate impact of these images by Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and George Barnard freed the fine arts to explore the deeper significance of the Civil War rather than chronicle each battle.

Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers, 1876, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Mrs. Joan Palevsky, Richard E. Sherwood, Maynard J. Toll, and Hal B. Wallis, Digital Image ©2012 Museum Associates /LACMA. Licensed by Art Resource, NY

Online Features and Audio Tour

A number of online features are available at, including a slide show of selected artworks included in the exhibition and a timeline linking artworks to key events during the Civil War. A video podcast featuring commentary by Harvey will be available on the museum’s website and through iTunes. A series of monthly posts by Harvey on the museum’s blog “Eye Level” will give readers insight into intersections between American art and the Civil War; read the posts at

An audio tour about the museum’s historic building and events that took place there during the Civil War, including President Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural ball, is available online a or by calling (202) 595-1852.


A daylong symposium, “Effects of the Civil War on American Art,” is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 16, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Harvey will deliver the keynote address. Additional speakers are John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art at Smith College; Randall Griffin, professor of art history at Southern Methodist University; Maurie McInnis, professor of American art and material culture at the University of Virginia; Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of photography at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Peter Wood, emeritus professor of history at Duke University.

Advance registration is required at The symposium will be webcast live and archived for future viewing. The program is supported by the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding the American Experience.

A second symposium featuring contemporary artists, “Why the Civil War Still Matters to American Art,” will take place in March 2013. Details will be available on the museum’s website as participants are confirmed.


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

Posted: 13 November 2012
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