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A new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., explores how the Civil War redefined American art and painting. Diane is joined by exhibit curator Eleanor Jones Harvey.
- Eleanor Harvey senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Photo Gallery: The Civil War And American Art
All images courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum .
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Civil War and American Art” by Eleanor Jones Harvey. Copyright 2012 by Eleanor Jones Harvey. Reprinted here by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the early 1800s, American artists painted the country's natural beauty and landscapes, the dominant genre of the time.
MS. DIANE REHMDuring the Civil War, artists again turned to nature, but instead of depicting a country at peace with the environment, now they painted foreboding scenes suggesting a nation adrift. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here in Washington explores the art of the Civil War.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the period, Eleanor Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and author of the companion book titled "The Civil War and American Art." I hope you'll join us 800-433-8850. We have a slide show at our website, drshow.org. You can see some of these paintings yourself. And good morning to you, Eleanor Harvey. I'm glad to have you here.
MS. ELEANOR HARVEYGood morning, Diane, it's a pleasure to be here.
REHMTell me how you got started on this project.
HARVEYIt goes all the way back to when I was an undergraduate in college. In 1980, in the wake of the bicentennial, there was a huge upswing and an interest and a pride in American art as being something worth studying. And we began two decades' worth of scholarship on American landscape painting, very little of which actually addressed the Civil War.
HARVEYAnd having grown up in Virginia with a family that didn't obsess about the Civil War, but definitely it was lurking in the background, I just realized that if you build a genre of landscape painting predicated on our being the new Eden, that somehow God loves us better than everyone else because we have Niagara Falls, a natural bridge.
HARVEYWhen Cain kills Abel at First Manassas, you get kicked out of the garden for behavior like that. You are flawed and mortal and left to roam the Earth very much in a loss of Eden. And it occurred to me that the Hudson River School genre really should be dead in the water by the end of 1861. We shouldn't be able to sustain this fantasy of a new Eden when the eastern landscape is awash in blood.
HARVEYAnd yet so many really talented historians and art historians mentioned the Civil War, but they didn't really account for it. There wasn't the sense that this was a cataclysmic life-altering, nation-altering event that changed everything.
REHMSo what were you looking for, in particular?
HARVEYIt took a long time to figure out what I was looking for. Over the intervening years, I'd been tucking away little bits and pieces of information, struggling to understand how landscape actually spoke to the Civil War when it seemed so definitively not to. And I had a breakthrough a couple of years ago.
HARVEYI was reading a book by Norman Izenschimmel (sp?) called "Eyewitness" and in it he extracted sections from soldiers' diaries, from officers' reports, from George Templeton Strong, from Abraham Lincoln, from Frederick Douglass and it was an attempt to go chronologically through the war and look at those poignant moments when people seem to be speaking with a larger sense of reality of what's going on in their times.
HARVEYAnd I ran across a description of the Battle of Second Manassas, which is not a battle a lot of people spend a lot of time on, and frankly, I knew nothing about except that it was fought in the same place as the First Manassas. And two different Texas soldiers wrote about that morning when the entire 5th New York Infantry -- they were Zouaves. They were dressed in brilliant red and blue uniforms modeled after the French Algerian Army.
HARVEYThey were considered the crack troops of New York. They were completely annihilated, over 500 of them injured or killed in 15 minutes. And these two soldiers writing separately talked to their families about how the field after the battle looked like a field of Texas wildflowers.
HARVEYWell, I lived in Texas for about ten years and I know what Indian Paintbrush and Bluebonnet look like in the spring and one soldier went on to continue and he said, you could have walked on their bodies for a quarter mile without touching the ground.
HARVEYAnd it suddenly clicked that they were using landscape both as a way of holding the horror at arm's length, but conveying a graphic and accurate picture of what was going on. Well, at that point, I realized I'm looking at landscape in weather metaphors everywhere.
HARVEYAnd that point, I started going back and looking at the pictures and looking what was happening around them and building a matrix in the moment of how people would have been saturated with this imagery so that when you look at these paintings, they simply don't stand apart from everything that you're thinking and hearing and singing and reading and writing.
REHMAnd what about the issue of slavery and how that might have been depicted?
HARVEYIt's interesting because we are fortunate that the genre painter Eastman Johnson came of age at the beginning of the Civil War. I believe he had a falling-out with his father who was a northern Democrat from Maine, which, at that point, you have to understand the Democrats are in favor of keeping and expanding slavery.
HARVEYThe not-quite-nascent Republican Party, which is really the Whig Party at this point, is starting to think that abolition and emancipation are absolutely necessary for the country to go forward. Johnson's father marries into George Washington's family and that brings slaves into the family.
HARVEYAnd Johnson, at that point, leaves and he carves out his own career. He tends to paint Blacks as real people not as caricatures, not as stereotypes, but he empathizes with the struggles that they are going through on an individual and human level to try to achieve freedom, equality and life of their own.
HARVEYIn landscape painting, slavery gets handled in a far more elliptical fashion, usually again through meteorological and weather-related metaphors.
HARVEYLincoln, as a presidential candidate, talked of the coming storm when God would run out of patience on the issue of slavery. It's picked up. It starts in the early 1800s. Abolitionist preachers make this a staple of their Sunday sermons and a lot of our artists ended up attending Henry Ward Beecher's sermons in Brooklyn where he talked about these over-darkened days and the need to stand up against slavery as a Christian moral battle of a storm on the horizon.
HARVEYAnd fortuitously, one of his parishioners, Martin Johnson Heade, starts painting thunderstorm pictures. We know him best for his pictures of Brazilian orchids and humming birds and Connecticut marshes, but the skies go black at exactly this moment and Beecher and his colleagues buy these pictures.
REHMWhat about Winslow Homer?
HARVEYWinslow Homer was a 25-year-old engraver/illustrator when the war broke out. He was not yet a known painter. He's detailed by Harper's Weekly to follow the army. He gets a pass to be able to do so. He's fortunate in that a family friend, Francis Barlow, is commanding one of the units under George McClellan and so he follows along.
HARVEYNot quite embedded, I don't think. They really weren't using terms like that, but it's the next best thing. And off and on for the next four years, he will be with Barlow and General Nelson Miles through the Peninsula Campaign. They are there at, as far as we can tell, at the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of the Crater and quite possibly close to the close at Appomattox.
HARVEYHomer comes of age as a person as a result of the war and I firmly believe, and I'm in good company with the Homer scholars out there, that Homer's life is shaped by the Civil War.
REHMAnd yet so many of the prints of Winslow Homers that we see are those specific depictions of boys in canoes or a young boy playing or tug of rope, something of that sort and not so much the images of war. Or are we to infer from those depictions that he's really taking us somewhere else?
HARVEYThere's a little bit of both. There are wooden engravings that Homer sends back. He sends back his drawings from the front. We're using telegraphy in order to get messages up North fast. We're using the train system in order to get drawings up North and some of those are turned into war-related wooden engravings, but he is also charged with balancing that, if you will.
HARVEYThe idea that you can't have a steady diet of war without something to leaven it and whether it's landscape painters painting sanctuary as a moment of relief from the strife or whether it's Homer painting childhood, I would say, though, that it was pretty clear by the middle of the war we were raising a generation of children on this war and we were deeply worried about how they would process it, how they would recover from it and whether or not the two sides, North and South, could, through the next generation, find a way to come back together again.
HARVEYSo those images of children are deeply fraught with anxiety about loss of innocence, the idea that childhood is now -- games are no longer games and that competition is no longer benign. And so there is this tension back and forth between what is idyllic and what is, in a sense, caught up in the anxiety surrounding the Civil War.
REHMEleanor Harvey, she's senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We're talking about a new exhibit, The Civil War and American Art. It begins here in Washington, D.C. this Friday at the Smithsonian. It runs through April. It then moves on to the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York City.
REHMEleanor Harvey wrote a book to accompany the exhibit and that book is also titled, "The Civil War and American Art." You can visit our website to see a photo slideshow of some of the paintings and photographs from the exhibit.
REHMYou can also join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. One quick question on before we go to the break and that is about photographs. Didn't they depict more vividly what was happening on those deadly fields?
HARVEYOh, my goodness, yes, and in a sense, they take the air out of the room. They negate any possibility of romanticizing this war.
REHMEleanor Harvey and we'll take a short break here and talk more about photography, painting when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Eleanor Harvey is with me. She's senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We're talking about an exhibit scheduled to open this week, Friday at the Smithsonian. It's titled "The Civil War and American Art." Eleanor Harvey wrote a book to accompany the exhibit also titled "The Civil War and American Art." Just before the break, Eleanor, we began to touch on photography. And it was really the first time photographs had depicted the nature of war. What was the reaction to that?
HARVEYThe reaction was stark and horrified. I think the reviewer for the New York Times put it best, that if Matthew Brady wasn't in fact lining corpses on our doorstep he was doing something very close to that. What you also have to remember is he put the photographs from Antietam in his gallery two weeks after the battle was fought. And they were in 3D. They were stereo photographs, which meant the first time you saw bloated corpses of Americans you saw it in low 3D. And I can't imagine that wasn't just an enormous shock to the system.
REHMAnd of course we should say that at the start of the war people thought it was going to be over very quickly. They thought maybe three months and we're out of here.
HARVEYYou had people that were dying to sign up because they figured one day and we'd send the Rebels packing, or one day and we'd send the Yanks packing. And they were dying to fight because they thought they wouldn't have a chance otherwise. And I think that misapprehension spread throughout both sides, north and south. There were those who understood that this was going to be long and brutal from the very beginning but they were in the vast minority.
HARVEYI think this was a war where -- I don't know why they thought that it was going to be over and done. Maybe it was the fact that the North had literally next to no standing army and, you know, after Fort Sumter Lincoln calls for 70,000 volunteers to defend Washington. The Confederates don't seem to understand that if they prosecute an adversarial war they probably could have taken the city right then and there.
HARVEYBut both sides were still waging a gentleman's war where they're kind of waiting for the other side to be ready in some way.
REHMBut then Matthew Brady takes a different look at the war.
HARVEYAnd suddenly war isn't so much fun anymore when you start seeing corpses. The New York Times reviewer ends with an extremely gruesome and sobering thought that with magnification you might be able to recognize a husband, a son or a brother in those photographs. And whether it's voyeuristic journalism at its best or whether he is absolutely right, it doesn't really matter because at that point it's no longer abstract. It's no longer romantic. It's your child.
REHMWhat kind of equipment is Matthew Brady using to take these photographs?
HARVEYWell, it's interesting because Brady tries to photograph First Manassas. It's a complete failure and he never goes out into the field again. He send his staff photographers, notable among them at that point, Alexander Gardner who is an extremely talented photographer and a journalist from Glasgow with a deep interest in human rights. And so he graphically portrays dead bodies because he's trying to get the point across, this is serious business.
REHMThis is war.
HARVEYThis is war. Brady is photographing commemorative landscapes, Gardner is photographing corpses. There is a huge aesthetic difference in the way they deal with the war that will auger a split between the two of them and they will become competitors. Brady and Gardner are taking probably two types of cameras out into the field. One is a stereo camera, which shoots two images simultaneously that are off slightly so that when you view them through an appropriate viewer you can see them in low 3D.
HARVEYThey are faster exposures. They still can't really capture action but they don't take as long to shoot as the longer exposures required of glass plate negative cameras, which can be, you know, 6 by 12" or 21 by 28". Nobody takes that large a camera out but a number of photographs take the midsize cameras out that are sort of 12 to 15 or 12 by 17". Those exposures take time and that's where photographing corpses is helpful because they don't tend to move.
HARVEYBut in terms of following the army these photographs spent four years trailing the army photographing the aftermath.
REHMSo how long does it take from the battlefield to publication of these photographs?
HARVEYNot very long, if Brady was able to get Gardner's photographs up on view in the apparatus of an exhibition within two weeks. They're developed in the field. You know what you've got. You carry the equipment back to New York and you print your prints and you arrange your stereo viewers or your wall installation and you're ready to go. So it is a much faster way of understanding the war than almost any other visual means.
REHMAnd what about newspapers?
HARVEYThe newspaper can't print photographs at this point. What they can do is get an engraver to actually do a wooden graving version of it, which kind of takes the stuffing out of it. I've seen the images that are based on those photographs and they're kind of limp by comparison. But they did try. Harper's Weekly tried. The daily papers tried. This is the coming of age of American journalism in terms of rapid fire response and broadening circulation.
HARVEYBut those papers also have a vested bias, then as now. And so you have your Northern papers that are pro Southern and you have your Northern papers that are pro Lincoln. And then you have the New York Times trying to walk the middle ground in between them rather unsuccessfully. And each of them has a point of view and an audience they are trying to rally.
REHMHow is President Lincoln reacting to what he is seeing?
HARVEYWell, I am not a Lincoln expert, however it strikes me that throughout the war Lincoln is a very shrewd man. He doesn't like to telegraph what it is he's thinking of doing. When he wants to announce the Emancipation Proclamation he lets General McClellan know, I need a victory. I need something to hang this on. and McClellan can't give it to him through the summer of 1862, which is why Lincoln waits until Antietam, which is a bloody strategic draw, and says good enough. We're going to have to move forward with this.
HARVEYLincoln needed people like Frederick Douglass. He needed a gadfly. He needed someone who could spur him to action without it being obvious that this was happening. He let Benjamin Butler get out ahead of him twice, once in declaring escaped slaves contraband and therefore not returnable property. That's in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act which Lincoln isn't ready to overturn yet but he kind of lets it happen of its own accord. Similarly Butler, the next year, invites freed blacks to join the army days before Stanton, Secretary of War is ready to announce this. Stanton is furious and Lincoln simply lets him go ahead and do it.
HARVEYAnd so it's as though he understand this is a larger chessboard. He has a lot of pieces in play and he needs to let some of those pieces actually advance his agenda before he's ready to announce it himself.
REHMI'm looking at some of these prints. I have paper copies in front of me. At one and the same time you sort of -- at initial glance you see a tree that looks kind of not very healthy, number one. But you look cross this landscape and here in the foreground are these Union soldiers, guns at the ready looking across the landscape. Can you tell me what's happening here?
HARVEYIsn't it a beautiful landscape?
HARVEYYou should have a picnic out there except...
HARVEY...in the background are these little tiny figures of people falling off of horses and shooting back.
HARVEYAnd what you have are what's known as guerilla warfare, it's skirmishers, sharpshooters at a distance from each other. That's actually up on the Lewisville Pike near Great Falls up not too far from Langley CIA headquarters. That's where the Union troops were bivouacked to protect Washington on the west side of the Potomac River.
HARVEYAlbert Bierstadt got a one-week pass to come watch the action. His brother was a photographer who was down there making photographs of soldiers for their loved ones. And he takes a picture staged with exactly those people in it.
REHMHe takes a photograph.
HARVEYYeah, he takes a photograph of that particular scene with that oak tree in the background. And Albert, his brother, will use it as the basis for something he probably never saw himself.
HARVEYBut that's, I think, one of the reasons it's so beautiful. It's a voyeurs war. If you look at Winslow Homer's pictures, say "Skirmish in the Wilderness" he's there and it's dark and it's chaotic and it's ugly and it's tense. And it conveys what Homer must have been processing himself which is this is not what anyone described to me as the valor of battle and the righteousness of a cause. This is brutal, ugly and uncertain.
REHMAnd here the Confederate flag flying high, a single soldier beneath it with a bayonet and off the shore you have several ships. What's going on here?
HARVEYThat is Conrad Wise Chapman who would've been a household name had the Confederacy won. He is John Gadsby Chapman's younger son, John Gadsby Chapman of Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria. He's a local boy, signs up to fight for the Confederate Army. He's a young Turk. He's deeply enthusiastic. He's stationed in Charleston in 1863. That's the federal navy out in the harbor shelling Fort Sumter, which is what he's standing on. And every day the Confederates would run the flag up the flagpole. And every day the Union Army would break the flagpole with a cannonball. And every day the Confederacy would repair it and the next morning run it right back up again. And so...
REHMAnd somebody would be there.
HARVEYAnd somebody would be there. Conrad Wise Chapman was asked to paint the battlements of Charleston Harbor for P.T. Beauregard's book on his accomplishments as the leading general in Charleston. But Conrad's a landscape painter. And so he paints these gorgeous landscapes. He floats a big Confederate flag, a number of them. And what he is giving you is at that point his confidence in the Confederacy, his pride in their cause and the sort of resolute notion that no matter how many gunboats are out in the harbor, that flag will fly every day.
REHMHere is a question about staging. The famous photo of the sharpshooter at Devil's Den was completely staged. The corpse was moved to the location. A non-sharpshooter's rifle was placed there. Do you have any thoughts regarding photographers staging of images back then? And how did that define art? Did it foster an acceptability of staging scenes to convey an intention?
HARVEYWell, first of all, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan who together made those shots, understood themselves to be artists. Gardner describes himself as the artist wandering the field with his camera. But to our knowledge this is the only scene that was staged. We actually don't have conclusive proof that it was done very often. It's kind of gruesome when you think about it.
HARVEYAnd so here you've got this young Confederate and they put a blanket underneath him, which you can see -- the Library of Congress has six different photographs that show the movement. You can see the blanket. You can see the way they shift his head, which is the gruesomest part about the whole thing. And Gardner seems to be creating what amounts to a genre painting in a photograph. He is trying, with his text that went along with this image, to say here is a Confederate alone and unremembered dying for the futility of his cause. And it's a scathing indictment of the South and of the Confederacy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm looking at a gorgeous mansion, one that is at one in the same time still looking gorgeous unscathed but with, I think, an American Union flag flying. And yet the mansion looks as though it's in the South. So I am assuming from this portrait that the Union forces have taken over the mansion. Who knows where the owners are. Tell me about this.
HARVEYThat is Old Westover. The painting is by Edward Lamson Henry who was stationed as a quarter master with Grant's troops outside City Point in Richmond. Westover was owned by the Byrd family who gave the name to Richmond who did a lot of the surveying there. They're...
HARVEY...B-Y-R-D which we all know so well here in Virginia down to the stay. And Henry was an architecture fan. And I think that it killed his soul to see Westover overrun, not once, not twice, but probably three or four times by the Union Army. Those are Mead's troops. They're about 45 or 50 of them scattered across the landscape. They've torn down the fence. they've taken over the house. There's laundry out of the window. There's a signal core on top and it's a makeshift headquarters.
HARVEYThe Byrd's had fled. They understood that this was right in the line of fire with Richmond as the goal. And it was prudent of them to get out of the way. They did come back afterward but the house was never really the same. But Westover was right up there with Mount Vernon. It was considered an emblem of colonial society. And I think this is a signal that that history is in some way in jeopardy given the direction the South has chosen to take.
REHMI'm looking at the face of a young black woman, clearly a slave, with a bag filled with cotton over her shoulder. Next to her is almost out of the portrait is a man carrying a basket filled with cotton. She is a mixture of beauty and fear and sadness and expectation. Who did this?
HARVEYThis is Winslow Homer's painting "The Cotton Pickers" from 1876. That year Homer returned to Virginia and was I think struck by how little things had changed as a result of reconstruction. He painted a number of images of black people. They're monumental in scale and scope. This one is one of the most powerful. The two cotton pickers, one on the right, her hands are trailing in the cotton as though her entire world is circumscribed by what has gone on before. The woman that you're speaking of with her cotton slung over her shoulder looks as though she's ready take that step right into our space. She is determined to get out.
HARVEYAnd I think Homer's doing two things that are really important. First of all, he's saying with these two figures the answer is not the same for everybody. It will depend on individual character and initiative as to whether you succeed or fail now that freedom is a possibility. The second is, the landscape is not now your friend, that you have to get out of the cotton, that you have to be able to get past this obstacle to achieve that future. And so we have gone from the new Eden to where landscape can be in effect another protagonist in the landscape, and sometimes one that poses an effective challenge.
REHMEleanor Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She's written a book that goes right along with an exhibit that begins this Friday at the Smithsonian here in Washington, D.C. The book and the exhibit are titled "The Civil War and American Art." When we come back, your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here's our first email for Eleanor Harvey. She's senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. As we talk about the new exhibit and her book accompanying it, titled, "The Civil War And American Art," Joe sends in an email saying, "The Civil War photography is already disturbingly familiar to many who pay attention. The gruesome immediacy of the technology. Your slide show of the art of the period, however, is a revelation to me. The paintings depict a more somber reflection of the scars of the war. You need to add more paintings. Particularly affecting for me were the black refugees in a physical and moral wilderness and the wrecked fort in the foreground of a beautiful ocean sunrise."
REHMNow, let me just tell you that as soon as this program is over, we will link our own website to that of the Smithsonian, where you will see not only more paintings, but a timeline of the exhibition. And for those of you who cannot wait, you can go to Americanart.si.edu, go to Exhibitions and there you will find the Civil War And American Art. Let's go to the phones. 800-433-8850. First to Bob in Austin, Texas. Good morning, Bob.
BOBHey, good morning, Diane. I love your show.
BOBWell, I just wanted to tell you that my grandmother's grandfather, Myles Moore was the drummer boy in the 54th Massachusetts with Frederick Douglas' two sons. He enlisted at Wheatville and I have a photo of him, possibly taken by Matthew Brady. He was, for all practical purposes, a poster child for black recruitment in the Civil War.
HARVEYI think that's absolutely fabulous. One of the things I have most enjoyed about tackling this topic is talking to people who have a personal connection to some aspect of the war. The story of the 54th Massachusetts, Robert Gould Shaw and that disastrous assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina is one of the most poignant moments in the history of America at that time. And I think that Shaw, for his willingness to command the brigade, Douglas for having two sons in the brigade, it supported everything Douglas stood for, where he said, if you put an eagle on a black man's chest, if you put a U.S. on his belt, if you give him a rifle, give him a reason to fight, he will do so and he will acquit himself well.
HARVEYAnd I think that, you know, objects like yours are things that you should absolutely treasure in your family, but I also hope, as a result of the sesquicentennial, the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, that that image can have broader exposure so that we all can understand our part in the legacy of this conflict.
BOBWell, I can tell you that my 11-year-old son, I've made arrangements for him to portray Myles Moore at the reenactment at James Island on July 18 of next year. We found a bunch of guys there in South Carolina who are keeping the memory of the 54th alive and we will be there.
REHMWow. Bob, thank you so much for calling and sharing that with us. I'm sure that's really quite something.
HARVEYIt really is. And I think that this 150th is a little bit different on the reenactment level than the 100th anniversary of the commemoration of the Civil War because so many different constituencies are getting involved. Not only the descendants of the U.S. colored troops, but also the women who either were spies or were at home working the home front or who were caught in the crossfire themselves. This is a conflict in which no one gets away unscathed. It is four solid years of back and forth.
HARVEYIf you think about what 9-11 did to us as a country in one day, there's a before, a during and an after. And we know that our lives will never be exactly the same. Four years of this? I can't imagine there's anyone within earshot of anything who did not come away in some way changed by all of this.
REHMAre there differences that you've seen between the ways in which the South created images and the way the North created the images?
HARVEYWell, it's interesting because not really, but the difference is in the number of images that are available. The northern blockades made it almost impossible to acquire artist supplies or photographer supplies after the opening months of the battle. There's no ready money to support an art market. The South is going to subsistence living very quickly. Even in Charleston and New Orleans, which are the two most richly endowed port cities in the South, there's virtually no art market during the years of the war. And it will take decades for that economy to rebound.
HARVEYAnd so this exhibition definitely has a Northern slant for two reasons, first of all, the availability of images in the South is far lower than it is in the North. And second, the New York art market was still alive, kicking and thriving during the war years. And they are shaping perceptions in real time as the war is prosecuted.
REHMLet's go to Killington, Vt. Hi there, Julia.
JULIAHi. Thanks for taking my call.
JULIAI just wanted to comment, first of all, this is a fascinating, fascinating topic. And I'm really glad it's coming to New York because I can't go down to Washington to see it. The point I wanted to make, though, was that I think that, you know, the gore and the horror is kind of a fascinating draw, but I just wanted to underscore that, you know, that America was losing its innocence really fast in those years and trying to hold onto the older, I think, peaceful, more bucolic, more beneficent view of life. And right in the middle of it Abraham Lincoln, as I understand it, I may have this a little bit wrong, but right in the middle of it, Lincoln signed the legislation that set aside Yosemite Valley as a natural preserve in the State of California.
JULIAIt wasn't, you know, a national park yet because they didn't exist, but the people were keenly aware of that. Frederick Law Olmsted was involved in that push. And so it's like the two things are going on side by side.
HARVEYYosemite is one of my favorite sidebar topics. And you will find a view of Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt from 1865 that is gloriously beautiful, but it has no people, no birds, no animals, it's as though you're waiting for the ark to come around the corner on the Merced River and start the world all over again, but you're right. Lincoln, in June of 1864, sides the Yosemite land grant. Frederick Law Olmsted has drafted the legislation. A Boston and San Francisco abolitionist preacher, Thomas Starr King, is right here behind it.
HARVEYAnd it's very clear, Albert Bierstadt gets to know Lincoln's personal secretary, John Hay, and writes him a letter from his first trip to Yosemite in August of 1863, where he says we are in the garden of Eden, the most magnificent place I have been. Everyone seems to understand you need a post-war sanctuary. And because we are such a landscape-based culture, we need a place that has no bloodshed. What's interesting to me and it's sort of the coda to this exhibition is, the entire National Park Service is a post-Civil War phenomenon.
HARVEYLincoln brings in Yosemite. Grant will bring in Yellowstone. A Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell will raft the Colorado River and survive to tell the tale. And it's as though in the West you develop a system of parks that are aspirational, encompassing those core American values of fortitude and determination and closeness to the land. Whereas in the East, we will commemorate loss and grief with a series of National Parks on battlefields.
REHMTo Alexandria, Va. Hello, Bobbie.
BOBBIEHi, Diane. I love your show.
BOBBIEI was just wondering, you've mentioned during the show different photographers and artists trying to either capture the landscape, the actual geography during the battles or in contrast, you know, trying to capture the reality of war and death and bloated corpses, but it's, you know, relatively well-known now that many more people died as a result of illness and injury from the Civil War than the actual battles themselves, was there anyone doing photos or doing paintings at the time that seemed to be aware of that medical phenomenon that was taking place and was able to capture that in some way? Or was that something that was just being learned later on?
HARVEYI think that Eastman Johnson actually addresses that more directly than most artists. There are a couple of paintings that are not in the exhibition. I wish I had unlimited space. The show would be double the size that it is, but, you know, pragmatically, when they give you the galleries, you start counting up the linear feet and you've got to call it quits at some point. Eastman Johnson did a picture called "The Field Hospital," which shows a wounded soldier convalescing in nature, out under a tree, with a nurse sitting next to him either reading or helping him write a letter home. Basically, again, trying to say, I think I’m going to be okay.
HARVEYHe painted another work called "The Pension Claim Agent," which is where this wounded veteran, an amputee, is pleading his case for insurance money. And what you have to remember is there is no insurance system or a pension system for soldiers until the Civil War when Montgomery Meigs, who builds the National Building Museum, as the Pensions Claim Building, realizes we don't know who's fighting, we don't know their next of kin, we don't how to find them and we have to find a way to take care of them.
HARVEYAnd so all of those systems that we now take for granted and complain about, they were brand new and they were scrambling in the middle of the war to start putting these things in place.
REHMTo Ashville, N.C. Michael, you've been waiting a long time.
MICHAELNo. Well, thank you, Diane. I'm glad to. I want to ask about a wonderful Winslow Homer painting, I don't know if it's a part of your exhibit, called "The Veteran In A New Field." Because that really shows a reaction against the war. I'm the father of two Iraq War veterans and Vietnam veteran myself. I find that painting so moving with the shirtless veteran, with a wheat scythe in his hands, scything a field, looking a little bit reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, but turning his back to the viewer as if turning his back on the war and its horrors and going forward in a peacetime pursuit, as it's sort of reminiscent of the Book of Isaiah. I wonder if you'd comment on that painting.
HARVEYI would be...
REHMYou know, Michael, I have that painting or a copy of thereof in my hand.
HARVEYIt is in the exhibition. We could not have done this exhibition without this painting.
HARVEYI am deeply grateful to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for lending it and for being a full partner in helping this show be a success. "Veteran In A New Field" is a complicated picture. And you're right, it does have to do with sloughing off the jacket and canteen, picking up the implements of farming. It's like George Washington, you know, invoking Sinsinatus (sp?), you know, turning swords into plowshares. It is a Grim Reaper scythe and Homer did that deliberately.
HARVEYAnd part of it has to do with your experiences as a Vietnam vet. There's a wonderful book by Eric Dean called, "Shook Over Hell," where he compares the experiences of Civil War soldiers and Vietnam veterans. And he talks about the language of post-traumatic stress. Eighty percent or more of Civil War battlefields were fought in corn and wheat fields. And every solider talks about mowing down the enemy like mowing down the wheat.
HARVEYAnd despite the fact that this man has sloughed off the outer garments, every time he swings that scythe you have to wonder what's going through his head.
REHMMichael, thank you so much for your service and for those of your two sons. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Lynchburg, Va. Good morning, Bill.
BILLHello. I've been fascinated by the Civil War ever since I moved to Virginia from New York. And I've been a pacifist because of some photography that I've seen so I'll make the four-hour drive to Washington to see the exhibit. It'll probably remind me and make me weep, as I believe a Life magazine, maybe '65, '66, the photographs of injured Vietnam soldiers made an indelible impression on me. And I've always wondered why we don't see that today. And I would have all our kids see this exhibit so similar impressions would be made on them. I think we would be out of places like Iraq and Afghanistan if citizens could see this kind of exhibit. It would bring it closer to home.
REHMBill, thanks for your call.
HARVEYI think you're right. I also think that -- thank you, first of all. I hope you do make the trip. I hope you find it well worth it. One of the things that most moved me about those photographs was the realization that nine days before Abraham Lincoln took the train to Gettysburg, to deliver the Gettysburg Address to commemorate the new veteran's cemetery there, he went into Alexander Gardner's photography studio here in Washington, D.C. to have yet another photograph taken. The two of them had actually struck up something of a friendship. Gardner is compiling an album of all of his photographs from Antietam and Gettysburg at the time that Lincoln is setting for that portrait.
HARVEYAnd I don't believe for a minute that Lincoln didn't see those photographs and that that wasn't in the back of his mind when he said, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground more than those who gave their lives here. And in a sense, the Gettysburg Address is his way of saying, what on Earth do you say at a moment like this? It's an incredibly powerful moment. So we have hung those photographs, proximate to the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and a photograph of Lincoln at the battlefield of Antietam, the month after the battle, where he's sort of dressing down George McClellan, which by that time was a fairly common thing for him to be doing, but to me it is one of those riveting moments that just resonates across time and history.
REHMGoodness, what a project for you. Just extraordinary.
HARVEYI have enjoyed every minute of this.
REHMEleanor Harvey, she's senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "The Civil War And American Art" begins in Washington, D.C. this Friday at the Smithsonian, runs through April. It then moves onto the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York City. Eleanor Harvey's book is also titled, "The Civil War And American Art." You can visit our website to see a slide show of some of the paintings and photographs. And then link to the website of the Smithsonian. Thank you so much.
HARVEYThank you very much for this opportunity.
REHMBeautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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