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The Civil War and American Art

The Civil War and American Art on display at Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

Seventy-five pieces of transporting art about the civil war — transporting us back in time to experience a multitude of aspects about the war, some we are certainly familiar with, many whose significance was only seemingly transparent at the time.

This exhibit illustrates a broad range of aspects about the war; soldiers, carnage, society, slavery, fear and hope. There are two mediums used, beginning with landscape paintings signaling the oncoming storm, scenes during the war, and also reflections on the storm after its passing. The exhibit balances these idealized interpretations with photography, showing the grim reality of the affair.

The artists are among the most famous of their time, painters Winslow Homer, Frederick Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and photographers Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and George Barnard. Many others are represented, each bringing unique perspectives.

Some of the pictures include “Our Banner in the Sky” painted by Frederick Edwin Church in 1861, portended the oncoming conflict. A number of paintings by Winslow Homer include “Home Sweet Home” showing two Union soldiers listening to the song of the same name which commanders wanted banned as it was thought to promote desertion. “Prisoners from the Front,” shows the disdain of captured Confederate soldiers at the end of the war, and “The Cotton Pickers” from 1876 perhaps representing resignation to the present and a look to the future in the faces of a two black women still picking cotton.

While many of us are familiar with the painting of the "Submarine Torpedo Boat H. L. Hunley" by Conrad Wise Chapman, how many have ever seen the original? There are a number of vintage photographic prints from Antietam by Alexander Gardner, including “Confederate Dead, Antietam” with the Dunker Church in the background. There is also a print of the famous "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg" by Gardner. Post war prints include "Ruins in Charleston, South Carolina and Ruins on Columbia, South Carolina," by George N. Barnard, both from 1865. All bringing visceral reality to the viewer.

This exhibit is a must see, even worth a couple of visits. The wide variety of styles gives the viewer a lot to take in, reflect on and perhaps revisit. Although the images are available on-line, one must visit the exhibit to take it all in. The scale of the images, both large and small, brings an authenticity allowing one to experience the content as it was originally intended to be viewed, adding to the experience and interpretation.

The Civil War and American Art is located at the American Art Museum at 8th and F Streets, N.W., next to the Gallery Place/Chinatown metro stop on the Red, Yellow and Green lines. The exhibit runs until April 28, 2013. For further information go to http://americanart.si.edu/

* Information contributed to Patch by local historian Chuck Mauro. 

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