‘You can’t say that a man like Church, or even Albert Bierstadt, who was, after all, an import — he wasn’t born in America — you can’t say that they painted in any way except in an American way. That involved grandeur, extravagance, sheer size.” These words from the English critic and historian Paul Johnson summarize perfectly many of the notable works on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Civil War and American Art, an exhibition timed to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the war. (The exhibition closes on April 28. It will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from May 27 to September 2.)
One gallery alone, filled with large-scale mid-19th-century masterpieces, justifies a visit. Here is the essence of what Johnson calls “the American way.” Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865) was painted the year the Civil War ended and as Americans began to look westward. In this breathtaking view through Yosemite’s towering peaks toward the luminescent, limitless horizon, Bierstadt envisions the yet uncharted splendor of the American future.
Nearby, Frederic Church’s The Icebergs (1861), a vast, dazzling, bone-chilling portrayal of leaden skies, mountainous icebergs, and multi-hued snow, evokes the Romantic dread of the destructive powers of nature. In a neighboring painting of a markedly different type, Cotopaxi (1862), he depicts an Andean volcano. Here the imagery is of heat, fire, ash, and a looming, lurid red sky, yet this painting too evokes the primeval powers of The Icebergs. (Another painting by Church in this exhibition, 1861’s Our Banner in the Sky, disappoints: Painted at the outset of the war, it portrays red clouds, blue sky, and white stars in the shape of the American flag, and demonstrates how a great artist can be banal when straining to bend his art to a topical or political purpose.)
There are many other fine landscapes in the exhibition, most notably those by Sanford Robinson Gifford, but the most compelling works are from the brush of Winslow Homer, perhaps the most American and the most gifted painter of our 19th century. The exhibition also features several of Homer’s depictions of the war, which he covered for the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly. Trained as an illustrator, like those quintessentially American artists Howard Pyle and Norman Rockwell, Homer knew how to make paint tell a story. But more than that, his works furnish a subtle, contemplative glimpse of the war unequaled by his contemporaries.
Home, Sweet Home (circa 1863) depicts Union soldiers bivouacked near Fredericksburg, lost in melancholy as they listen to the distant sound of a military band playing the popular song of the same name, a tune beloved of President Lincoln: After hearing it in the White House, he thanked the singer, who noted that the president’s “voice was husky and his eyes were full of tears.”
Homer’s The Briarwood Pipe (1864) portrays two members of the Fifth New York Infantry, attired in their exotic Zouave blue jackets and bright red pants (which made them excellent targets for Confederate soldiers). The title comes from the pipe one of them carves as they converse before their tents, seen in the background against a cloud-splashed sky. Loosely painted with just a few colors, the picture focuses not on the feats of these dashing troops but on a peaceful interlude between episodes of war’s carnage.
While Homer does paint images of combat — Sharpshooter (1863), derived from one of his illustrations in Harper’s Weekly, shows a sniper taking aim — it’s his Veteran in a New Field (1865), a complex meditation on the war, that is the most arresting painting in the exhibition. In a stark composition of loosely painted bands of sky, and rows of standing wheat (many Civil War battles were fought in wheat fields) more suggested than depicted, Homer skillfully tells his story by a sophisticated handling of form, autumnal color, and light. The veteran, his uniform jacket cast on the ground, occupies the middle of the canvas, his white shirt the most brilliant part of an otherwise sober palette. As he scythes the stalks of grain that fall behind him, an action that hauntingly evokes the archetypal image of the grim reaper, the veteran faces a bountiful harvest and a resurrection of life after the butchery that ended the year Homer painted this masterpiece. The simplicity and mystery of this quiet scene is ineffably moving.