Smithsonian’s “The Civil War and American Art” Exhibition

A new exhibition on Civil War era paintings opens today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

“The Civil War and American Art” examines how America’s artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath. The exhibition 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.

The first video is an overview, but the embed used here includes six more videos on individual paintings that follow automatically.  Enjoy.

2 comments… add one
  • Joan Stack Nov 24, 2012 @ 0:56

    Hi Kevin,
    As an art historian working on this period, I appreciate this post. Sadly time and finances will probably preclude me from going to this exhibit.

    In early November I posted a message on the Smithsonian site about this exhibition expressing my surprise that the great American genre painter of Missouri, George Caleb Bingham, was left out. Perhaps Bingham didn’t fit into the exhibition’s main narrative: that artists didn’t really want to paint the war so they turned to the landscape.

    Bingham wasn’t just any Civil War artist. The celebrated Missouri master was a Whig politician who served in the state legislature in 1848-49. He was involved in debates over slavery’s expansion during his term, taking a progressive stance . In the 1850s, he was an active partisan who participated in politics and wrote anti-slavery letters to a Missouri newspaper. AND, to cap it all off, in the 1860s, he was a volunteer in Missouri’s Unionist home guard and from 1862-1865, he served as State Treasurer for Missouri’s Unionist government.

    Bingham painted several pictures related to the war, but the most famous is the monumental, wall-sized painting “General Order No. 11” which hangs in the gallery I oversee at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia. The picture deals with the evacuation of civilians from the border counties of Missouri during guerrilla warfare. I find this picture endlessly intriguing, and I would argue that it is among the most amazing and complex paintings reacting to the war painted by any American artist. Issues of gender, class, and race are addressed from the interesting perspective of a Unionist in a border slave state.

    The Smithsonian actually responded to my question about Bingham by saying that the exhibit didn’t include Bingham , because “General Order No. 11” was a history painting. General Order No. 11 is a monumental picture, but it does not fit the definition of a heroic history painting described by the curator in the video introduction.

    It seems to me Bingham’s painting might have been as relevant as Frederick Church’s painting of the Northern Lights. However, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at a decision by an East Coast museum to ignore the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi West! I e-mailed the curator directly to congratulate her on the exhibit. Perhaps she will respond.

  • Chris Nov 17, 2012 @ 16:16

    Art is a great way to engage students by viewing works of art that teenagers would not ordinarily associate with the Civil War. My students participated in a video conference with the Smithsonian in October along with other classrooms around the country and had an extraordinary experience. Thank you for posting these videos – I will use as a review for the class.

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