In 1862, the painter Frederic Church created a monumental canvas of a volcano, Cotopaxi, erupting in the Ecuadorian Andes. The scene, suffused with red and orange, showed smoke billowing from the mountain while the plateau beneath it broke apart.
Frederic Church’s 1862 “Cotopaxi,” with its molten, broken landscape (suggesting the turmoil of the war), is among the paintings in this new look at works of the period. Image courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library
These days, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will find the painting among the 75 works in The Civil War and American Art, on view May 27 through Sept. 2.
With its South American setting, “Cotopaxi” might not seem a likely candidate for an exhibition about the art of our own Civil War. But the painting, with its heated palette, cloud of smoke and severed landscape, mirrors the upheaval of the war, says Eleanor Jones Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who organized the exhibition. (It was shown at the Washington museum before coming to the Met.)
Nor is “Cotopaxi” an anomaly, the show argues. In the Civil War period, “everyone is describing how they feel about the war, using a language rich in metaphors drawn from nature,” said Harvey, who studied not only paintings but newspapers, sermons, poems, songs and other primary sources of the time.
So, with the abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass referring in 1861 to slavery as “a moral volcano,” should it be surprising that Church used similar imagery the following year? Or that his painting was, quite likely, about more than the actual Cotopaxi?
Martin Johnson Heade's Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859
Seen through the same prism, Martin Johnson Heade’s 1859 “Approaching Thunder Storm”—with its image of a man sitting on the shore of an inlet as black clouds loom and boats head for safety—could also be a warning of dire events to come; and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “A Coming Storm,” from1863, may allude to the turbulence raging beyond its Catskill mountain domain.
Sanford Gifford. A Coming Storm, 1863, retouched and re-dated in 1880
In a way, landscape artists had no choice but to tackle the war indirectly: Photographs taken in the field, showing bodies strewn across the grass or lying in trenches, more than met the need for such images. (The exhibition includes 18 vintage photographs.)
“Once you’ve seen those photographs, there is no market for pictures of Americans killing each other,” Harvey said. “It’s a downer over the fireplace.” (Frederic Church, for one, was keenly aware of the marketplace, temporarily changing the title of a giant 1861 canvas from “The Icebergs” to “The North” during its display in pro-Union New York City, and making other politically wise changes later.)
Nor was there really a successful way to create uplifting battle scenes in the European mold: “This isn’t the Revolution, where you kick Britain out and have something to celebrate,” Harvey said.
Instead, artists like Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer created genre paintings—scenes from everyday life—that elevated the art form beyond its low-humor origins. The Civil War, according to Harvey, forced genre painters “to kind of sober up and ask much harder questions about, what does it mean to be American?”
That included black Americans, previously depicted largely as caricatures. Johnson and Homer, however, showed them as rounded human beings, whether fleeing for their freedom (in Johnson’s “A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862”) or, post-war, baring their true feelings of anger and hostility toward their former owners (Homer’s 1876 “A Visit from the Old Mistress”).
Homer’s paintings of war, too, whether depicting soldiers at camp carving wood pipes or listening, somberly, to regimental bands playing in the distance, humanized the struggle with a new psychological subtlety.
Winslow Homer. The Veteran in a New Field, 1865
In his 1865 “The Veteran in a New Field,” Homer showed the difficulties of returning home after the war: While the veteran has laid aside his army jacket and canteen to harvest a wheat field, his outmoded scythe is shaped like the grim reaper’s—suggesting that death is still much on his mind.
Harvey’s research into the symbols—from volcanoes to scythes—of Civil War art stemmed from her interest in both landscapes and natural history; and her conclusions contrasted with prevailing art-historical views. “I kept reading that the landscape painters weren’t engaged in the war, that they’re painting ‘sanctuary’,” she said. What she found instead by digging into primary material is that “nobody gets away unscathed” by the war, including the artists, who addressed it in the visual language they knew.
The Met views Harvey’s research as refreshingly original. “Up until now, it’s really quite amazing, even serious art historians haven’t necessarily looked at those works in relation to the Civil War,” said H. Barbara Weinberg, the museum’s Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture.
The exhibition, Weinberg said, does not insist we see everything solely through the lens of the war. Rather, the show invites “some new readings, some new understandings of the work,” she said. “It’s very open-minded.”
A related exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War, is on view through Sept. 2. [Civil War-related prints are also on display through Aug. 25.] The Metropolitan Museum is at 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.
Karin Lipson, a former arts writer and editor for Newsday, is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Her last article in Promenade was on German Expressionism at the Neue Galerie.