740: The Civil War and American Art by Eleanor Jones Harvey

by Gerard


740.973074753: Harvey, Eleanor Jones. The Civil War and American Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. 241 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-18733-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 740: Drawing and decorative arts
  • +0973: United States
  • +074: Museums, collections, exhibits
  • +753: District of Columbia

From November 16, 2012 to April 28, 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is sponsoring an exhibit designed to showcase American artists and photographers of the 1860s and how the American Civil War changed the way they perceived and rendered the world around them in their compositions. Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator and organizer for the exhibit, details the evolution of American art through the rocky years of the war in the catalog for The Civil War and American Art. This book is a stunning collection of paintings, photographs, and lithographs.

The Civil War, formally started by the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 by the Confederate Army, flooded the American landscape with images of battles, gun smoke, and death. Artists on both sides of the fighting tried—each in their own way—to incorporate both their vision of the world and the action around them into their art. Harvey writes, perhaps rather hackneyed, that the war “wrought great changes in the nation’s visual culture and character.”

She catalogs multiples works from James Hope, Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, Winslow Homer, Matthew Brady, John Kensett, Alexander Gardner, and many others to see how the time they spent around the war changed their art. Most of the changes show how the artists dealt with the grim reality of the war and how news of the carnage was reflected in the general population. The works sought to capture both the brutality of the battlefield and the banality of camp life.

Of unique importance is how the fledgling field of photography earned it stripes as a new addition to the media of the art world. The few talented pioneers of war photography were able to bring a vision of the war back home to those who were so far removed from the fighting. While newspapers editors and pamphleteers could bend the truth is their recounting of the battles, the photographs were unflinching windows into an otherwise hidden world.

Harvey’s writing is good as one can get when talking about both savage fighting and elegant art. The juxtaposition of those two kept me reading fervently. She incorporates writing from Dickinson, Whitman, Twain, and Melville to help lend context to the artwork and the history. If you’re in any way a Civil War buff or an art lover, you should not miss out on this book. It is truly remarkable.