“Photographs from Antietam make it stunningly impossible for anyone associated with the New York art world to make romantic pictures of the war because they look like lies,” Harvey said.
Art also changed the rhetoric about war by depicting gruesome reality. Raw imagery shown to President Abraham Lincoln likely influenced the words he drafted for his Gettysburg Address, Harvey said.
“There's a realization that this is a war that left nobody unscathed,” she said. “As a result, as rich as you are, there is no insulation from the impact of the war.”
Landscape paintings reflected the mood of the nation. Artists depicted scenes of nature and weather to represent the war's destruction and impact. There are layers of coding in such paintings, Harvey said, as with Church's depiction of ice as Northern fortitude, an erupting volcano to represent slavery and the tropics to represent the South.
At the same time, Homer and Johnson addressed slavery and emancipation with scenes of ordinary people, including a slave family escaping to freedom on horseback and a slave man reading from the Bible.
In postwar America, Homer painted a scene of former slaves meeting with their former mistress, renegotiating their relationship to involve wages. “Homer is saying, `until this gets fixed, we're not done,'” Harvey said.