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The Civil War and American Art

December 3, 2012

The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum exhibit was as small as you might expect for a concept you might not have known existed – American Civil War art. I really enjoyed the show though. My favorite painting was Conrad Wise Chapman’s Fort Sumter, Interior, Sunrise, December 1863. He painted the fort in ruins. The destroyed view was new to me. And I didn’t recall it from my visit a few summers ago. The Fort Sumter nook of the exhibit showed several views including Fort Sumter [Gun Gallery], December 1863 which offered an unblemished fort waiting for the next assault.

Considering that 1) I’m a girl, and 2) I’m under the age of 40, I know a disturbing amount of information about the Civil War.* The American Art Museum taught me more. The exhibit included paintings, sketches, photographs and information about the lives of the artists. (Here’s a list of the artwork in the exhibit and accompanying thumbnail pictures.)

Winslow Homer and his depictions of camp life owned a wall of the gallery. Black teamsters, corn cob pipes, teepees and Zouaves stared back at me in brightly-colored paintings. So much of Civil War photography shows wide open fields covered in dead bodies that it was nice to see paintings of living people relaxing as best they could in the time between skirmishes and battles.

Another thought-provoker that pushed me into internet research when I got home (yea, Wikipedia!) was Eastman Johnson’s Card Players, Fryeburg, Maine. The real subject was not the card-playing men in the painting but the concept of free sugar – maple sugar produced by the paid labor of northern, abolitionist states as opposed to white sugar produced in the south with the use of slave labor.

Boldly colored landscapes filled the last section of the exhibit. The write-ups to accompany the paintings seemed a bit of a stretch – something about the emotional turmoil of the time – but the artwork was beautiful. Cotopaxi (apparently on loan from the Detroit Institute of the Arts) by Frederic Edwin Church was my favorite. The transition from the close-up paintings of camp life and the domestic intricacies of Negro Life in the South, 1859 to wide-open landscapes felt strange, but perhaps the designers of the exhibit were going for the surreal, which was appropriate for the Civil War.

“The Civil War and American Art” at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum (8th and F Streets N.W., Washington D.C.) runs through the end of April 2013 and includes a diverse program of public events.

[Don’t read any further if historic facts cause your eyes to bleed.]

* I’ll demonstrate. The building that houses National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum was the Patent Office Building during the Civil War. Here’s a timely photograph of the interior and a slightly earlier one of the exterior.

That information is easy enough to find, and it’s not too hard to discover that Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Ball was held at the Patent Office Building. However, you have to read Margaret Leech’s amazing Reveille in Washington (1941) to learn that “The inauguration ball was scheduled for a Monday night…proceeds were to be devoted to the aid of soldiers’ families, and there had been a brisk sale of ten-dollar tickets, which admitted a gentleman and two ladies, with no extra charge for an elegant supper. The committee, however, had been obliged to issue an emphatic denial that no tickets had been sold to colored people.”

The Washington Evening Star newspaper dated March 7, 1865, which is available in the Library of Congress stacks, will tell you that the following meats were consumed at the Ball: “oyster stews, terrapin do, oysters pickled, beef, roast beef, filet of beef, beef a la mode, beef langlais, veil , game, patetes, smocked, salades, chickens, lobster.”

I don’t even know what some of those things are, but I do know that I’m fascinated by Civil War trivia, especially when it relates to Washington D.C.!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2012 11:24 pm

    The dessert list was crazy, too, but I forgot to put the commas in when I took the notes, and new it looks like a sugary mess even on the paper. : )


  2. December 3, 2012 11:03 pm

    I didn’t know that bit about the Card Players, or I forgot it, or I’m thinking of the wrong Card Players. Anyway, thanks for enlightening me. And that’s an awful lot of meat for one ball.


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