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 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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