The Civil War Connections Blog

Civil War Art: A Search for Truth

The hanging of photography or artwork from the Civil War in any museum is usually a press worthy event, especially during the sesquicentennial anniversary celebration continuing this year.  My attention was recently drawn to an article from The New Yorker critiquing some of the work hung in two current exhibitions of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Titled “The Civil War and American Art” and “Photography and the American Civil War,” the exhibitions feature images from prominent artists and photographers including Winslow Homer and Alexander Gardner.  In his article “The Seething Hell: Portraying the Civil War” (found HERE), Peter Schjeldahl praised Homer while chastising Gardner based on Homer’s tendency to produce historically accurate works of art as opposed to Gardner’s often doctored and altered images.  Though Schjeldahl rightly criticizes much of the art community surrounding work from the Civil War, he falls prey to a flaw of the same species that prompted Gardner’s motivation to produce compelling, though inaccurate, images.  Schjeldahl’s article and the two exhibitions in the Met subsequently force us to ask a few important questions about such art: Should photographs or paintings from the Civil War be hung in a museum of history, art, or both?  Is historical accuracy a necessary component of art from times of war? Before delving into these questions, let us first take a look at the men Schjeldahl discussed and the standard he set forth to determine what constitutes accurate, and consequently valuable, artwork from the Civil War.[i]

Born in 1836, Winslow Homer was an artist that possessed a great deal of natural talent.  Learning many techniques from his own self-initiated bouts of study, Homer mastered the mediums of oil and watercolor following an initial career as a commercial illustrator.  He first worked primarily with oil paints, the medium that characterized his images focused on the Civil War.  At the age of 37, well after the war’s conclusion, Homer turned to watercolors, creating images that would craft his legacy as an accomplished landscape artist.  Producing both breathtaking and unique landscapes that would influence the work of similar artists today, he is best known for his maritime scenes blending deep blues, crisp whites, and ambiguous grays to illustrate the captivating sea that could simultaneously inspire fear and wonder.[ii]

Breezing Up (or A Fair Wind) - Winslow Homer - www.winslow-homer.com

Breezing Up (or A Fair Wind) – Winslow Homer – www.winslow-homer.com

 

The painting that Schjeldahl focused on in his article was titled “Prisoners from the Front.”  Painted in 1866, Homer singled out three Confederate prisoners of war from the scene of defeat behind them, equipping each with an expression akin to the controversy and conflicted emotions following the conclusion of the Civil War.  Schjeldahl rightly pointed out that the question of forced citizenship, the inevitability of continuous regional tension, and the anxiety surrounding Confederate defeat were all themes communicated by the figures immortalized in oil paint.  Schjeldahl also praised Homer for his willingness to tackle more untouchable topics of his time, including the integration of formerly enslaved Americans into their new lives of freedom.  “Homer,” Schjeldahl remarked, was “a rare artist who cannot lie, grasps and conveys that the Civil War was not really over, as it may never be.”[iii]

Prisoners from the Front - Winslow Homer - www.winslow-homer.com

Prisoners from the Front – Winslow Homer – www.winslow-homer.com

 

Schjeldahl contrasted the works of Homer with those of Alexander Gardner, one of the most famous Civil War photographers.  Born in 1821, Gardner was a Scottish immigrant that traveled between his homeland and the United States, establishing a popular Scottish newspaper and a successful photography gallery along the way.  Before he broke out on his own in the photography industry, he was employed by Matthew Brady to initially take large Imperial photographs.  However, once the photography mogul’s eyesight began to wane, Gardner was promoted to head of Brady’s gallery in New York.  Gardner would not stay in New York long as the action of the Civil War beckoned him to the battlefields.  Using Brady’s connections and an honorary rank of Captain in George McClellan’s staff, he gained access to some of the most infamous battlefields of the war, snapping the first pictures of casualties before being removed from the fields of Antietam.[iv]

Gardner possessed a body of work that rivaled his opponents, selections of which have filled pages of history books today.  Nonetheless, his photographs do not exist without controversy.  As Schjeldahl pointed out, Gardner was charged with moving the subjects of his pictures to produce more artistic or dramatic images.  “A rebel at Gettysburg,” he explained, “had to have died slowly, because his corpse, still flexible when Gardner found it two days after the battle, could be made to perform like a puppet in two picturesque scenarios.”  The series of photos he referred to are often called the “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter.”  In the two images below, the same corpse can be seen posed in two different locations, moved to suit Gardner’s artistic vision.[v]

[Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in "the devil's den"]

Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldiers in “the devil’s den,” Library of Congress

[Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldier in Devil's Den]

“Gettysburg, Pa. Dead Confederate soldier in Devil’s Den,” Library of Congress

 

Schjeldahl chastised Gardner’s photographs in his article and attributed them, along with other images doctored by Civil War artists, to the validation of Walt Whitman’s prediction that “the real war will never get in the books.”  He explained that men motivated by fame and profit, such as Gardner or the painter Frederic Church, crafted inaccurate images to attract viewers; once weighed against more accurate depictions, such illustrations of war dwarfed in historical and, in the context of his article, artistic value.  Images devoid of emotion, portraying simple landscapes or expressionless soldiers, also constituted inaccurate images according to the pen of Schjeldahl.  The artists responsible for such images, he claimed, were immobilized by the horrors of war, unable to create accurate illustrations of the world around them. Instead, Schjeldahl propped up Homer as a pioneer in his field for allying himself with the truth: war was brutal, conflicting, and grafted onto the lives of those involved in its day to day torment.[vi]

Though Homer did create accurate paintings in the wake of other biased or profit-driven artists, Schjeldahl put forth his own modern and unrealistic expectation for “accurate” works of Civil War art: captivating images that elicit an emotional response from the onlooker.  He seems to expect a spectator to feel sympathy or be surprised at the horrors of war as depicted by an artist. If the subjects of a painting, drawing, or photograph do not genuinely have the pain of war stricken across their brows, then this image must not accurately portray the scene from a hundred and fifty years ago.  Schjeldahl is, in effect, expecting the very same things in an image that Gardner and Church attempted to market toward: an audience looking to gasp, empathize with the subject, or simply see what I would term an “interesting” image.  In other words, something has to be going on in the frame beyond men marching or a landscape characterized by what Schjeldahl termed “benumbed or melancholy detachment.”  By gazing upon an accurate work, we must see the soldiers’ faces; we must feel ourselves pulled into the action; and we must carry the weight of death and destruction on our shoulders just as the men depicted did over a century ago.  Schjeldahl may initially seem to have a more stringent standard than Gardner or Church, however, he is discounting a major body of Civil War art including many of the artists that have been featured on this blog.  From topographers to mining engineers, battlefield artists to soldiers, many crafted accurate and technically beautiful images that could be overlooked or dismissed by Schjeldahl’s emotionally charged standard.[vii]

Andrew J. Russell, a painter and photographer born in New York, was the first official photographer of the United States Army.  Charged with documenting Army construction projects, he took pictures of cannons, bridges, and other fortifications with crisp black and white film, making use of new techniques taught to him by another staff member of Matthew Brady: Egbert Guy Fowx.  Alfred R. Waud, an English immigrant, also captured battlefield scenes in the pages of his sketchbook, producing images to be published for a number of northern magazines, including Harper’s Weekly.  Waud illustrated the war from the perspective of an onlooker travelling with McClellan’s army, detailing battles as accurately as he could under the pressure of live fire.  Neither artist produced images with the emotion that Schjeldahl sought in the exhibits at the Met, yet each were skilled at portraying the world around them with unique artistic techniques.[viii]

Batteries of field pieces in arsenal, Washington, D.C.

“Batteries of field pieces in arsenal, Washington, D.C.” by Andrew Russell, Library of Congress

Kearney [sic] at Battle of Williamsburg

“Kearney [sic] at Battle of Williamsburg,” by Alfred Waud, Library of Congress

Schjeldahl also focused on Northern artists, blaming the limited amount of art produced (or better yet, that remains) from the South on the distraction that sheer economic and physical devastation produced.  This line of reasoning, a common one likely parroted by a tour guide in the Met, fails on two accounts.  First, the devastation in the South from the war, though immense, was not to the magnitude that much of the public, and many academics, tends to believe.  Often this reasoning is based on photographs from Virginia widely distributed following the surrender at Appomattox depicting burned houses, dead livestock, and disheveled towns.  However, these areas were both devastated and over-photographed for the same reason: they lay alongside railroads.  These were the areas that the Union targeted when attempting to cripple the South; these were the lands that lay alongside the railroad tracks that Confederate troops were ordered to destroy, preventing the Union from advancing; and these were the towns that photographers traveled through once the Union invested resources to rebuild the dismantled tracks, reestablishing the main, and often only, means of efficient transportation through the Southern states.

Second, some of the most accurate art from the war was produced by Confederate artists.  Many of the artists under the purview of Confederate authorities were encouraged by their superiors to provide images that could aid in the war effort.  A map or a sketch of a battlefield not only captured a picturesque demonstration of the artistic capabilities of its creator, but could provide valuable information for a Confederate officer.  An accurate depiction of the lay of the land, the positioning of troops, or events that occurred could explain why a particular battle swayed in favor of victory or defeat for the Confederacy.  An excellent example of such a body of work is found in the sketchbook of Jedediah Hotchkiss, a Confederate topographer and map maker.  Hotchkiss possessed a keen eye for the world around him and produced maps and images integral to Confederate military campaigns, including many of the movements of Stonewall Jackson’s infamously swift foot cavalry.[ix]

But works similar to Hotchkiss’ call into question a greater issue surrounding many of the images produced during the Civil War: are maps or sheer depictions of reality art?  Must these images elicit an emotional reaction from the audience, or be produced with the intention of doing so, in order to be called “art”?  According to Schjeldahl, if this emotional element is not found in an image, then the creator must have been disheveled by the tragedy of war, limiting the artist’s ability to imitate reality, and preventing an accurate depiction of events from being produced: these images are inferior to works like Homer’s.  If his logic would extend so far as to dismiss the works I have presented as sincere and accurate examples of art,  I would ask why is he so intent on finding accuracy in the images displayed by the Met?  Why is he so offended by individuals such as Gardner if they were attempting to provide him with the very kinds of work he desires?  The fact is that images created during times of war blur the line between historic record and art.  Such works are held to the standards we craft for both even though certain criteria may conflict with each other.  We are offended if a beautiful image is not true to history, yet we consider images as most accurate only if they match our preconceptions of what the devastation of war should look like.  When a guest in an art museum gazes upon the painting of a burnt building in Richmond, they may wonder: Where is the emotion?  Where is the fear?  Where is the crying protagonist whose life has been turned upside down?  A spectator in a museum of history may ask similar questions of the same painting and both will likely come to the final question that Schjeldahl begs above all:  If this emotion is not found in the painting, it must not be an accurate depiction of the Civil War; why would the museum hang it?  The better question to ask ourselves would be why do we have these expectations for history?  A simple, or dare I say boring, image may be anything but; such works are not devoid of the reality of war nor absent of artistic beauty.


[i] Special thanks to John “JR” Roach, Jr. for bringing my attention to this thought provoking article: Peter Schjeldahl, “The Seething Hell: Portraying the Civil War,” The New Yorker, published June 3, 2013, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/artworld/2013/06/03/130603craw_artworld_schjeldahl?currentPage=1.

 

[ii] “Winslow Homer and his Paintings,” Winslow Homer: Paintings, Quotes, and Biography, published 2009, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.winslowhomer.org/.

 

[iii] Schjeldahl, “The Seething Hell,” Web.

[iv] “Alexander Gardner: Photographer,” Civil War Trust Online, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/alexander-gardner.html.

[v] Schjeldahl, “The Seething Hell,” Web; “The Case of the Moved Body,” Library of Congress Online, accessed June 4, 2013, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/cwpcam/cwcam3b.html.

[vi] Schjeldahl, “The Seething Hell,” Web.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Kasey Sease, “Take a Look Around: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell,” Civil War Connections: The Mariners’ Museum’s Sesquicentennial Blog, published May 21, 2012, accessed Jone 4, 2013, http://www.marinersmuseum.org/blogs/civilwar/?p=1265; Kasey Sease, “More Than Just a Pretty Picture,” Civil War Connections: The Mariners’ Museum’s Sesquicentennial Blog, published July 5, 2012, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.marinersmuseum.org/blogs/civilwar/?p=1761.

[ix] Kasey Sease, “The Lay of the Land: A Topographer’s View of the Civil War,” Civil War Connections: The Mariners’ Museum’s Sesquicentennial Blog, published May 31, 2012, accessed June 4, 2013, http://www.marinersmuseum.org/blogs/civilwar/?p=1410.