A girl stands on a promontory, her hair streaming in the wind. The path before her trails off, so she must either retrace her steps or try to find her way forward. Her wedding ring speaks to a commitment to her union and a husband who has gone to war. The split-rail fence below and the fog surrounding her speak to a world fraught with division and ambivalence. Johnson’s figure appears to be waiting for some sign of what will come next. The title comes from a Regimental song.
The Civil War and American Art, 2012
A young girl stands on a promontory, her hair streaming in the wind. The path before her ends, so she must either retrace her steps or try to find a different way forward. Johnson called this painting The Girl I Left Behind Me, invoking an Irish ballad that was popular with both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. In doing so, the artist opens the possibility that this young girl is doing more than waiting for the return of her husband. Her wedding ring, glinting in the light, speaks of commitment to her union, but is Johnson referring to her personal life or to the nation? The split-rail fence below her divides the landscape, and the fog surrounding her suggests a world fraught with ambivalence. She appears to wait for a sign of what will come next.
The Civil War defined America and forever changed American art. American artists of this era could not depict the conflict using the conventions of European history painting, which glamorized the hero on the battlefield. Instead, America’s finest painters captured the transformative impact of the war. Through landscapes and genre paintings, these artists gave voice to the nation’s highest ideals and deepest concerns — illustrating a time that has been described as the second American Revolution.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide. Nashville, TN: Beckon Books, 2015.
The Girl I Left Behind Me
- ca. 1872
- 42 x 34 7⁄8 in. (106.7 x 88.7 cm.)
- Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase made possible in part by Mrs. Alexander Hamilton Rice in memory of her husband and by Ralph Cross Johnson
- Mediums Description
- oil on canvas
- Figure female
- History – United States – Civil War
- State of being – emotion – fear
- Landscape – weather – wind
- Object – written matter – book
- Object Number
- Linked Open Data
- Linked Open Data URI