The Civil War and American Art

A closer look at the war that redefined the nation and forever changed the landscape of American art

By Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Girl I Left Behind Me (1870-1875) by Eastman JohnsonSmithsonian American Art Museum

The Civil War redefined America and forever changed American art. The conflict has been described as the second American Revolution, which wrested the founding precepts for this nation and threatened to topple our democracy. This exhibition considers the war's impact on American art and on the artists who experienced it firsthand. 

Episode 1 - Podcast: The Civil War and American Art (2012)Smithsonian American Art Museum

Watch Senior Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey give a brief introduction to "The Civil War and American Art."

Cotopaxi (1855) by Frederic Edwin ChurchSmithsonian American Art Museum

Landscapes and the metaphorical war

American landscape painting developed in tandem with an appreciation for the physical and metaphorical qualities of the American wilderness. As Americans began to see positive resonances in their own natural landscapes, they developed a wilderness aesthetic that linked America's prospects for her future with two things: the potential for progress through cultivating the raw landscape and the virtues found in the pristine aspects of those wild spaces. 

The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York, Homer Dodge Martin, ca. 1862, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
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Aurora Borealis, Frederic Edwin Church, 1865, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
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The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty (1862) by Winslow HomerSmithsonian American Art Museum

The human face of war

The Civil War provided American artists with an opportunity to witness the combat firsthand, either in uniform or as civilian observers. But what must have seemed a chance to make or enhance a reputation painting history as it unfolded turned out to be very difficult to achieve. 

Surrender of a Confederate Soldier, Julian Scott, 1873, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
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The Advance Guard of the Grand Army of the United States Crossing the Long Bridge over the Potomac (1861) by Winslow HomerSmithsonian American Art Museum

A Bivouac Fire on the Potomac, from Harper's Weekly, December 21, 1861 (1861) by Winslow HomerSmithsonian American Art Museum

Abolition and emancipation

Out of the morass of intertwined causes of the Civil War, two emerged as central governing ideas: the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Bringing the Confederate states back to the Union, rather than letting them secede to form a separate country, was the original reason given for fighting the war. But at the heart of the division between North and South was the unavoidable issue of slavery. 

The Lord Is My Shepherd, Eastman Johnson, ca. 1863, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
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A Visit from the Old Mistress, Winslow Homer, 1876, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
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The Girl I Left Behind Me (1870-1875) by Eastman JohnsonSmithsonian American Art Museum

Aftermath

Ending the war and returning home was harder and more complicated than anyone imagined. The readjustments of veterans, the options faced by millions of newly freed blacks, and the changes that had taken place on the home front all came into sharp relief. As they had during the war, artists looked for ways to make sense of the changes that were taking place around them, as veterans were reunited with loved ones who had weathered the war years at home. 

Credits: Story

This online gallery features selected artworks from the exhibition "The Civil War and American Art," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"The Civil War and American Art" is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Anschutz Foundation; Ludmila and Conrad Cafritz; Christie’s; Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins; Tania and Tom Evans; Norma Lee and Morton Funger; Dorothy Tapper Goldman; Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment; Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts; Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation; Joffa and Bill Kerr; Thelma and Melvin Lenkin; Henry Luce Foundation; Paula and Peter Lunder; Margery and Edgar Masinter; Barbro and Bernard Osher; Walter and Lucille Rubin Foundation; Patricia Rubin and Ted Slavin; Holly and Nick Ruffin. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum's traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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