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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Conrad Wise Chapman. The Flag of Sumter,October 20, 1863. 1863-64. Oil on board, 11 1/2 x 15 1/2 inches. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond , VA, 0985.14.371. Photography by Alan Thompson.
Over those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, when all most of us really want to do is sit in the shade and drink a cool drink, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is treating us to not one but two big, ambitious doses of blood and guts--two major loan shows dealing with the Civil War. The one I saw first deals with painting and the Civil War, while the second is devoted to photographs related to the Civil War. In this review, I will offer my thoughts concerning the first of these two shows.

“The Civil War and American Art” includes some 60 paintings and 18 photographs, and was organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it has already appeared (on view at the Met through September 2). And the first painting I saw, upon entering it, was “Approaching Thunder Storm”(1859) by Martin Johnson Heade. It’s a fine little picture, but – since the Met owns it—also a very familiar one. Oh, God, I thought, is this going to be yet another Met special from its own permanent collection? Then I glanced at the second painting, “A Coming Storm” (1863-1880) by Sanford Gifford, which is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This reassured me that I would be getting lots of pictures that weren’t so familiar; but I still couldn’t figure out why we should have two such similar paintings right next to each other – and, more importantly, what two peaceful landscapes could have to do with the Civil War.

I glanced at the label of the Heade – and that was the beginning of my undoing, because the label was all about how this picture was an allusion to the coming Civil War. This seemed quite a stretch, despite the label’s further efforts to tie picture & Civil War together by saying that Lincoln was “reported” to have spoken of “the storm coming” in relation to slavery, that abolitionist clergymen had adopted the metaphor in their sermons, and that one of them had owned this painting.

Then I suddenly realized that the entire show was going to be study in illustration, with paintings of every conceivable subject dragooned into the service of Telling a Story. Somehow that also made clear to me that all or most of these paintings would be wrapped in a faint, silent veil of sticky sentimentality—as a rule, not inherent in the paintings, but instilled there by their labels and the general awareness that they had been chosen because they were – or could be made to look like–Message Painting.

In 19th century American art, critics used to speak of “sentiment” in paintings, especially in landscapes, and Barbara Novak, one of my Columbia profs and a trailblazer in discovering “content” in 19th century paintings, interpreted this “sentiment” (again, especially in landscape painting) as tributes to the hand of the Almighty, and/or in sync with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism. But hey, that was the 60s and the 70s, before the advent of Neo-Marxist art history – and, since Neo-Marxism has (long since) washed over the entire field of art history, religious meanings have been scrapped in favor of political ones.

Apparently, Novak wasn’t altogether certain what “sentiment” meant in 19th century art criticism, so she listed it as a possible topic for a seminar report in a seminar that I took with her. Because I thought that “sentiment” might be related to “feeling,” and I’d heard from Bill Rubin that abstract painting, like all great art, was about “feeling,” I chose “sentiment” as the subject of my report. I read a lot of 19th century American art criticism, and eventually went along with the dictionary definition of “sentiment” as a “thought“ prompted by a “feeling,” but it also became clear to me that the word had been so overworked during the 19th century that by the 20th, nobody had any idea what it really looked like or meant. In retrospect, I would say that what looked in a painting like “sentiment” to 19th century eyes may come to look perilously like “sentimentality” in the 21st – particularly when treated as it is in this show—which essentially favors paintings that editorialize, as opposed to those that merely report what they see.

Even the 13 good-looking paintings by Winslow Homer – which, from a purely formal point of view, are far and away the best paintings in the show – don’t, in this context, escape a tinge of “sentiment” or sentimentality. My own explanation includes two arguments. One is that the war itself was evidently so dreadful, with its appalling waste of life and the emotional strains of pitting brother against brother, that even an artist as gifted as Homer shrank from showing its full horror, instead overcompensating in the opposite direction, and making even most of his battlefront pictures into cozy little anecdotes showing most of the soldiers, in effect, enjoying a kind of home away from home. The other consideration is that Homer’s oils were based on sketches, and these sketches were also translated into wood engravings that were published in a popular magazine, Harper’s Weekly. In other words, although Homer’s official title during the war, when he was at the front, was “artist-correspondent” for Harper’s, he was in fact an illustrator, and being an illustrator, then as now, tends to vitiate the power of the image.

Admittedly, on the whole, the works on view in this exhibition escape the worst excesses of 19th century sweetness verging on stickiness (we are at least spared the inclusion of Lilly Martin Spencer). But, as always in exhibitions selected upon the basis of subject matter (as opposed to style), the quality of the work is uneven. Along with the relative excellence of Homer, we also get the cornball histrionics of those pretentious second-generation Hudson River School painters, Frederic E. Church & Albert Bierstadt, to say nothing of loads of Eastman Johnson, a conscientious chronicler of contemporary mores who rarely, if ever, rose above the level of competence.

On top of that, over and over we get the virtuously correct politics of the labels and wall texts. When Johnson paints maple sugar being harvested in New England, we must needs be told that among abolitionists it was known as “free sugar,” to be contrasted with the “slave sugar” produced by Confederate sugar cane plantations (though very possibly as much more expensive than cane sugar as it is today). When Johnson paints the family of William Tilden Blodgett at Christmas, we must needs find Political Significance in the little girl’s costume --- supposedly modeled on that of Little Eva in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the best-selling anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe---and the fact that the little boy is playing with a wooden “jig doll,” which looks like a black man clad in a Union Army uniform. Is this really necessary? Or is it only necessary because the painting by itself is so pedestrian?

An unusually far-fetched label accompanies Johnson’s “Negro Life at the South” (1859). Here we are instructed to believe that the figures “allude to the mixing of the races and to relationships between white masters and enslaved women.” In support of this contention, the label cites a white cat slinking through a bedroom window in the slave quarters and a dark-skinned woman holding a lighter-skinned baby. I can’t see that a white cat proves anything, and as far as I could tell, baby and mother had skins the same color. Possibly you may enjoy all these paintings when you go to see the show, but don’t spoil your enjoyment by reading the wall texts or the labels!

I don’t mean to imply that slavery was ever acceptable, that the Civil War wasn’t fought for a worthy cause, or that the war itself wasn’t a brutal agony which in some senses is still being fought. But all the good intentions in the world can’t alter the fact that, to be truly great, the artist has to be able to rise above the atrocities of the moment, and somehow achieve the detachment and serenity that alone may ensure immortality—regardless of what terrible events are being depicted. I am thinking here of “The Third of May” by Goya, which in Homemade Esthetics was characterized by Clement Greenberg as better than anything Pollock ever painted.

Although I also liked the paintings by Gifford and John Kensett, I related strongly to only two segments of the show as a whole. The first was the group of smallish paintings, mostly oil on board, by the Confederate soldier-artist Conrad Wise Chapman (1842-1910). Son of an expatriate American painter, Chapman was born in Virginia, raised in Rome, and returned home to enlist in 1861 in the Third Kentucky Infantry. Wounded in 1862, he subsequently transferred to a Virginia regiment and wound up in Charleston. There General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered him to create a pictorial record of the Confederate army’s defense of the harbor. This show has nine of the 31 scenes Chapmen created in response to the order, four of them depicting beleaguered Fort Sumter, which stands at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, and had been taken by the South from the Yankees in the opening salvo of the war. Especially effective is the picture of the ragged Confederate flag flying over the fort—mute testimony to the ordeal being undergone.

Although in style these little paintings could almost be called semi-primitive, they are also crisp, concise and admirably detached. Chapman was merely reporting, not editorializing, about the sights he was seeing, and what a difference that makes! I don't say that reporters are totally unemotional about their subjects--even (or perhaps I should say especially) the best reporters put their feelings about their subjects into their coverage, but -- unlike editorial writers -- they don't moralize about their subjects. Perhaps that's what makes the difference.

The other segment of “The Civil War in American Art” that I went for was the modest selection of 18 photographs (albumen prints), mostly by Alexander Gardner & George N. Barnard. Their subject matter is almost unrelievedly grim: dead soldiers, building ruins, and deserted defensive works. All are rendered doubly solemn because they were all in shades of black & white—but once again, this is all reporting, not editorializing, of an almost frightening detachment, and so blessedly free from the mist of stickiness that envelopes almost all of the rest of the exhibition. However, I won’t dwell on this segment of this show any longer, as next week I expect to be posting my review of Met’s second Civil War exhibition, which is devoted entirely to photography.
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