The Magazine

Canvas Battlefield

In the Civil War, art comes to terms with reality.

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JAMES GARDNER
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In one of his bolder poetic flourishes, General MacArthur once invoked “the sputter of musketry” to refer to burp guns and bazookas. His phrase had the élan of gallantry, even chivalry, to it, as it deftly sidestepped the new and very different realities of modern warfare. Some generations earlier, during the Civil War, humanity witnessed the birth of a form of industrialized violence that, by the very nature and degree of its escalation, vanquished the euphemisms that were still available to the generations who had lived through the Napoleonic campaigns and the Crimean War. 

‘Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War’ by Albert Bierstadt (1862)

‘Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War’ by Albert Bierstadt (1862)

the century association, new york

If language itself paled before this new reality, could painting be expected to do much better?

Embedded in our nation’s visual culture is a paradox that had not occurred to me before I saw this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Although our painters were hardly at the forefront of art history in the 1860s, they were the first to try to make visual sense of what they had seen and lived through in the war between the states. They were the first to come to terms with those dismal engines whose consequences would define the 20th century. Many of the paintings on view—by Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt—are hardly unknown to seasoned museumgoers. But in the Met show, perhaps for the first time, these works are seen within the context of the great conflict that once divided the nation.

Among early modern artists, the question of how to respond to war was never explicitly raised. In Paolo Uccello’s great series The Battle of San Romano (ca. 1438-40), and in Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari (ca. 1505, known through later copies), one is struck by the pageantry of war rather than by its horror. This horror was not unknown to literature, but in painting there was neither the inclination nor even the formal vocabulary to do it justice. 

Today, as well, the question of how to depict war is a simple equation—except that the contemporary artist’s opposition to it is a foregone conclusion. Starting with the German Expressionists, through the antiwar movement of the 1960s, up to the present day, visual artists have clamored to outdo one another in conveying the harsh and sordid reality of human conflict in the most revolting terms imaginable. 

But for the American artists of the 1860s, and roughly half a century thereafter, the depiction of war was suddenly no longer as obvious as it had been only a generation earlier. The difficulty they encountered had as much to do with the awful novelty of industrialized warfare as with the limitations of art itself—the sense among painters that art as they knew it, art as they had always practiced it, was unequal to this new reality. And so they experienced something like revulsion in addressing it at all.

In consequence, the most eloquent thing about the works included in this exhibition is their evasiveness. Indeed, the war and its immediate aftermath are almost never represented directly. Occasionally a landscape hints at a skirmish—but so subtly, so peaceably that, but for its title, we might never suspect that a battle had been waged in the first place. Then there are portraits of generals, either in repose or greeting one another before or after a battle. But the battle itself, with all its horror, is almost never directly engaged.

Most of the paintings here are landscapes, that essential American art form of the 19th century. From the arrival of Thomas Cole in America in 1818 to the death of Frederic Edwin Church in 1900, no other province of painting commanded the respect of landscapes, which answered to a patriotic impulse to extol the very terrain of the young republic. But the foremost masters of this genre, among them Church, Martin Johnson Heade, and Sanford Robinson Gifford, addressed the theme of the Civil War with as much metaphorical indirection as any other artists. 

The period leading up to, and contemporary with, the war was dominated by the so-called Luminist movement, whose landscapes, characterized by brilliant and bizarre effects of lighting and atmosphere, united the pantheistic naturalism of Baron Humboldt with the Christian positivism of John Ruskin. These qualities are memorably enshrined in Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm of 1859 and in Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Coming Storm (1863). But can we be certain that either of them is really about the war? 

In fact, Gifford, who fought in the war with the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia, made such worthy images of military life as Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland (1864) and Fort Federal Hill at Sunset, Baltimore (1862). But even these betray little trace of the actual conflict, let alone the horrors of that conflict. 

If Gifford was an observer from and for the Union, Conrad Wise Chapman represented the Confederate side. He is not nearly as gifted an artist, but there is a powerful and persuasive prose to his art. On numerous occasions, he depicts things that had never before appeared in a painting: One sees this in White Point Battery Charleston, Dec. 24th 1863 as well as in Submarine Torpedo Boat H. L. Hunley, Dec. 6 1863. The latter depicts two men standing beside the gunmetal gray contraption of the title, which is being held together with decidedly unclassical screws and bolts.

The great Winslow Homer does somewhat better in capturing the excitement of an actual campaign. His A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty (1863) depicts a faceless Union soldier in a tree, firing off a rifle. Skirmish in the Wilderness, from one year later, unites the tones of the Barbizon School with the realism of Courbet. But the vividness of action eludes him in these paintings, and he is far better at depicting the tranquil intercourse of human beings in his magnificent Brierwood Pipe, also from 1864, in which two men, in the red and blue uniforms of the Zouaves, sit pensively and silently beside their tent. 

Homer continued his efforts after the war in such memorable paintings as The Veteran in a New Field (1865) and Dressing for the Carnival, a depiction of a family of freed slaves, from 1877. 

For a true and unadorned record of the war, one must go to photography, which is represented not only here but also in an even more focused and concurrent Met exhibition, “Photography and the American Civil War.” Mechanized warfare met its match in this relatively new and equally technical record of reality. By virtue of its novelty, photography was unencumbered by those hoary traditions of composition and treatment—derived from antiquity and the paintings of the Old Masters—from which fine artists were only beginning to emancipate themselves. 

Finally, in the photographic images taken by Mathew Brady, his assistants, and Alexander Gardner, we see, unadorned and mostly unedited, those mutilated human forms, living and dead, as well as those equally outraged landscapes, pitted and scarred and dredged, in a way that, until then, had been entirely unknown to visual art.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library). 

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