The Civil War and American Art

November 16, 2012 — April 27, 2013

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)

The Civil War and American Art examines how America’s artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath. Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford—four of America’s finest artists of the era—anchor the exhibition. The exhibition follows the conflict from palpable unease on the eve of war, to heady optimism that it would be over with a single battle, to a growing realization that this conflict would not end quickly and a deepening awareness of issues surrounding emancipation and the need for reconciliation. Genre and landscape painting captured the transformative impact of the war, not traditional history painting.

The Civil War and American Art includes 75 works—57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs. The artworks were chosen for their aesthetic power in conveying the intense emotions of the period. Homer and Johnson grappled directly with issues such as emancipation and reconciliation. Church and Gifford contended with the destruction of the idea that America was a “New Eden.” Most of the artworks in the exhibition were made during the war, when it was unclear how long it might last and which side would win.

The exhibition also includes battlefield photography, which carried the gruesome burden of documenting the carnage and destruction. The visceral and immediate impact of these images by Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and George Barnard freed the fine arts to explore the deeper significance of the Civil War, rather than chronicle each battle.

Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator, organized the exhibition.

National Tour
The exhibition travels to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, N.Y. (May 27, 2013–September 2, 2013).

A major scholarly catalogue, authored by Harvey and published by the museum in association with Yale University Press, focuses on the coming of age of American art during the Civil War. It is available for purchase ($65 hardcover, $45 softcover) in the museum store, through the museum’s online shop, and in bookstores nationwide.

Go behind-the-scenes with the museum's blog, Eye Level
The Civil War and American Art: A Confederate View, April 25, 2013
A Civil War Wikipedia Edit-a-thon!, March 14, 2013
The Civil War and American Art: Six Questions for ""Materialist Poet"" Dario Robleto, March 12, 2013
Harvard's Drew Gilpin Faust on the Language of War, March 7, 2013
The Civil War and American Art: A Ride for Liberty?, February 21, 2013
The Civil War and American Art: "The Alphabet is An Abolitionist", January 29, 2013
Picture This: American Art's Civil War Podcast, December 11, 2012
The Civil War and American Art: Cotopaxi, America's "Moral Compass", December 4, 2012
War and Paint: Art of the Civil War November 15, 2012
Revealing Homer in A Visit from the Old Mistress November 8, 2012
The Civil War and American Art: The Power of Images November 1, 2012

In the News

The New York Times, May 30, 2013, “When Painters Showed the War in More Than Blue and Gray” by Ken Johnson
New Yorker, June 3, 2013, “The Seething Hell: Portraying the Civil War” by Peter Schjeldahl
The New York Times, Disunion blog, February 5, 2013, “America’s Moral Volcano” by Eleanor Jones Harvey
C-SPAN3, American History TV, American Artifacts: The Civil War and American Art, Part 1 and Part 2 with Eleanor Jones Harvey
The New York Times, January 11, 2013, “American Eden, After the Fall” by Holland Cotter
Antiques and the Arts Weekly, January 11, 2013, “The Civil War and American Art” by Stephen May
The Free-Lance Star, January 10, 2013, “Arts: Nation’s schism on display in D.C.” by Clint Schemmer
The Independent, December 24, 2012, “American nightmare: the art of the Civil War” by Adrian Hamilton
WETA, December 18, 2012, exhibition review with Bill Dunlap and Janis Goodman
The Washington Post, November 25, 2012, “‘Civil War and American Art’ puts the battle in the background” by Philip Kennicott
Associated Press, November 23, 2012, "Smithsonian gathers best art of Civil War era" by Brett Zongker
Smithsonian, November 16, 2012, Around the Mall blog post
The Modern Art Notes Podcast, November 15, 2012, Tyler Green’s interview with Eleanor Harvey
The Diane Rehm Show, November 13, 2012, Eleanor Harvey discusses The Civil War and American Art


The Civil War and American Art is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Anschutz Foundation; Ludmila and Conrad Cafritz; Christie’s; Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins; Tania and Tom Evans; Norma Lee and Morton Funger; Dorothy Tapper Goldman; Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment; Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts; Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation; Joffa and Bill Kerr; Thelma and Melvin Lenkin; Henry Luce Foundation; Paula and Peter Lunder; Margery and Edgar Masinter; Barbro and Bernard Osher; Walter and Lucille Rubin Foundation; Patricia Rubin and Ted Slavin; Holly and Nick Ruffin. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum's traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.