Smithsonian gathers best art of Civil War era

Associated Press Modified: November 23, 2012 at 3:46 pm •  Published: November 23, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Paintings and photographs depicting the raw reality of the Civil War marked a major change in American art that tossed out romantic notions of war.

Some of the finest artists of the day, including Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford, painted landscapes and scenes of everyday life to show how the war transformed the nation. Their best works, along with some of the first photographs of soldiers killed on the battlefield, have been gathered by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for a major exhibition on how artists represented the war and how the war changed art. "The Civil War and American Art" is on view in Washington through April and then moves to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey spent years researching the project and borrowing many of the 75 works featured in the show. It features Civil War scenes from Washington, Baltimore, New York, and points south at Fort Sumter, Charleston, S.C., Georgia and Virginia.

Rather than make portraits of war generals and heroes, however, artists of the day focused on the common man. There was a realization that "art that presents normal human beings, rather than celebrities and luminaries, carries more lasting weight."

One painting in the show, Gifford's 1862 painting "Preaching to the Troops," depicting a scene near Washington, was displayed in the Oval Office for 13 years.

Photographs had perhaps the greatest impact on art of the era. Battlefield photographs by Alexander Gardner showing piles of dead soldiers and images by George Barnard showing Charleston in ruins destroyed any romantic notions of war being a heroic adventure. Such images were shown in art galleries in the Northeast during the war and made people realize "this is not what I signed up for," Harvey said.

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