It will strike some as a bit of a stretch in the scholarship to see American landscapes in an exhibition of Civil War art. Where, after all, is the evidence to support the theory that the Hudson River artists were intent on conveying the nation’s angst in their paintings? Or that the reason an avid New York public lined up to view Church’s latest works was because, as the panel has it, they “address the emotional toil the war took on the nation as a whole”? (For at least part of the war, Church was living with his wife in Jamaica, trying to recover from the shock of having two of his young children die of diphtheria.)
Still, Eleanor Jones Harvey, curator of “The Civil War and American Art,” insists that the landscapists were not immune from the turmoil of the conflict and that their paintings “carry a layer of war meaning; you can’t avoid it.”
If nothing else, it’s a bold and original approach, and the inclusion of the Hudson River School paintings adds an unexpected dimension to the exhibition.
One of the four works is Church’s masterpiece “The Icebergs” (1861). An Arctic ice scape of desolate beauty, it was exhibited for the first time 12 days after the start of the Civil War; and yes, the artist did temporarily change the title to “The North,” reflecting his allegiance in the conflict.
Two others were shown first as the war was drawing to a close. In Church’s oversized “Aurora Borealis” (1864), polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes’ ship, the SS United States, is trapped motionless in an ice floe in the shadow of a dark mountain, the multicolored sky ablaze with light. In the artist’s “Rainy Season in the Tropics” (1865), rainbows overarch the terrain.
Positioned at the beginning of the exhibition, these paintings could have been confusing because they are not war pictures, and the connection with the Civil War is at best allegorical rather than visually evident. At the end, they make a spectacular postscript to a show that is less about the Civil War and more about how it echoes through the assembled pictures.
WHAT: “The Civil War in American Art”
WHERE:Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets Northwest
WHEN: Nov. 16, through April 28, 2013
PHONE: 202/633- 8490