- - Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibition, “The Civil War and American Art,” which opens today, has two stars. One is the enslaved black American; the other is Winslow Homer.

The issues of emancipation and racial equality – Frederick Douglass’ “great, paramount, imperative and all commanding question” – are addressed in some of the exhibition’s most moving paintings.

As for Homer, he was sent - at around age 28 – to the front as an illustrator and correspondent for Harper’s Weekly and by the end of the war had established his reputation as a painter, having produced (and sold) numerous oil paintings filled with the immediacy of being there.

“Sharpshooter” (1863), his first painting, depicts a sniper with a precision rifle picking off the enemy one soldier at a time from his concealed position in a tree. The work is typical of Homer’s strong technique and his understated images of ordinary soldiers.

Close by is the artist’s “Home Sweet Home” (1863), which became one of the most popular paintings of the war. It shows two soldiers listening to the regimental band playing the popular song of the title – and no doubt feeling homesick. But the title also is an ironic reference to the soldiers’ current home, their tent.

The latter work is emblematic of the exhibition’s view of the Civil War. There are no guts-and-glory paintings, in large part because Civil War artists didn’t paint European-style canvases showing the broad sweep of battle (that came later) – or images of the hero on the battlefield. Homer’s “Skirmish in the Wilderness” (1864) is about as close to the action as the exhibition gets. It shows Union soldiers in a densely wooded area fighting an unseen enemy.

The show’s main war narrative reflects the soldiers’ life at the front – hours of inactivity between short periods of savage action. The troops are shown in camp, attending church service, drying their rain-soaked uniforms and recovering after an attack, as in Confederate artist Conrad Wise Chapman’s “Fort Sumter” (1863-1864), which depicts the defending battery in a shambles of upturned cannons and battered walls after a sustained Union artillery barrage.

Strangely, the soldiers seem to belong to an army without leaders. There’s hardly a general in sight, except for Union Gen. Francis C. Barlow confronting three resentful Confederate prisoners in Homer’s famous “Prisoners From the Front” (1866). Lincoln is shown only in Alexander Gardner’s photograph of the president visiting the overly cautious Gen. George B. McClellan and his staff after Antietam. But Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is reproduced on the wall.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s decisive, devastating push into the South is referred to in photographs by George N. Barnard of Atlanta’s defensive perimeter, including a shot of lethal-looking cheveaux de frise and earth-filled gabions.

The killing fields after the battle are also shown in the exhibition’s photograph section. Photography played a great part in bringing the Civil War close to the population. But what we have here is a series of charnel-house images by Gardner, mainly of Confederate dead after Antietam in 1862. Especially gruesome is the image of bodies in a ditch on the right wing of the Confederate line.

Gardner, Homer, Chapman and others were embedded with the military long before the term was invented. Artists Sanford Robinson Gifford and Chapman were precursors of today’s soldier-artists – usually specialist noncommissioned officers on assignment to every theater of war where the U.S. Army is deployed, including, most recently, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans.

Eastman Johnson and Homer open the section on slaves with two powerful oil paintings. Johnson’s “Negro Life in the South” (1859) - one of the earliest works in the show – is a crowded canvas with layers of story set not on a Southern plantation, but in slave quarters in Washington. The figures in the painting represent a wide spectrum of skin tones, a reference to the mixing of races in slave society – and, no doubt, to white owners exercising droit de seigneur.

Homer’s sensitive and successful studio oil “Dressing for the Carnival” (1877) – one of the latest works in the show – recalls a slave custom of dressing up on the day after Christmas (one of the few holidays when slaves were excused from work) and visiting their masters’ houses to perform and receive tips.

Two further pictures juxtapose how fugitive slaves met different fates. In Johnson’s “A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves” (1862), a black family of four on one horse races toward the Union lines and looks set to be sent north to freedom. But in Thomas Moran’s “Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia” (1982), a black couple seeking refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp, which harbored communities of escaped slaves, seem close to capture, cornered by slave hunters and their dogs.

In the last room are four massive dramatic paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, the best-known landscape painter in the Hudson River School. In a postscript that is likely to raise some eyebrows, the works are cited as “the emotional barometer of the national psyche” in an accompanying descriptive panel.

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