The Civil War and American Art

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The Civil War redefined America and forever changed American art. Its grim reality, captured through the new medium of photography, was laid bare. American artists could not approach the conflict with the conventions of European history painting, which glamorized the hero on the battlefield. Instead, many artists found ways to weave the war into works of art that considered the human narrative—the daily experiences of soldiers, slaves, and families left behind. Artists and writers wrestled with the ambiguity and anxiety of the Civil War and used landscape imagery to give voice to their misgivings as well as their hopes for themselves and the nation.

This important book looks at the range of artwork created before, during, and following the war, in the years between 1852 and 1877. Author Eleanor Jones Harvey surveys paintings made by some of America's finest artists, including Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, Winslow Homer, and Eastman Johnson, and photographs taken by George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 

Harvey examines American landscape and genre painting and the new medium of photography to understand both how artists made sense of the war and how they portrayed what was a deeply painful, complex period in American history. Enriched by firsthand accounts of the war by soldiers, former slaves, abolitionists, and statesmen, Harvey's research demonstrates how these artists used painting and photography to reshape American culture. Alongside the artworks, period voices (notably those of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman) amplify the anxiety and dilemmas of wartime America. 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Fought entirely on our own soil, the American Civil War was numbingly brutal, killing nearly thirty times as many soldiers as any previous U.S. war. Its reality seemed far different than the conflicts portrayed in traditional European history painting; a bloody disparity brought out even more forcefully in the battlefield photographs of Brady and Gardner. American painters responded to the conflicting impulses of patriotism, anxiety, and repulsion aroused by these breaking events in ways that sometimes they themselves did not understand. Eleanor Jones Harvey's stunning narrative of this breakthrough period in both our nation's history and our nation's art possesses significance beyond any narrow genre.

Publishers Weekly
Released alongside an extensive exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this latest from Harvey (The Painted Sketch) provides a nuanced, sensitive, and deeply informed accounting of a major period in the history of American art. Harvey sees with fresh attention the "war-infected layer of meaning" that permeates the period around the Civil War, gracefully navigating the political and aesthetic complexities that altered the literal and metaphoric landscapes of the time. She balances the broader world of military campaigns with detailed examinations of prominent artists, turning her attention to topics such as the rumbling skies of landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church and the subtleties of Winslow Homer's attitudes regarding race. Her sustained exploration is accompanied by striking reproductions of the images, with the gruesome photography of ravaged bodies and landscapes affecting enough to invigorate interest in the historical topics. Paired alongside these studies are considerations of popular poetry and journalism, highlighting the ways that visual art both altered the broader culture while remaining inseparable from it. The comprehensive study manages to remain engaging across its redolent academic and historical interests, creating a sincere excitement appropriate to Harvey's always insightful and vital reckoning with America's scarred past. Color illus.
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David W. Blight
The Civil War and American Art is a scholarly and a narrative achievement both harrowing and sublime. Eleanor Jones Harvey has written a keenly critical and often lyrical assessment of the war she calls all but “unpaintable.” In genre painting that captured universal meanings out of local episodes in the ugly ironies of war, and especially in the new moods, metaphors, and forms that landscape painters drew from the war, Harvey demonstrates a profound, seismic influence of history on art. But she also brilliantly demonstrates that artists, even the photographers, could not so much re-make the actual history of our Armageddon as they could represent what we might indirectly see or learn from such a withering and mythic experience as modern war.”—David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
Modern Art Notes - Tyler Green
“Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art is the rare book that connects the dots between art and history so well that the reader assumes that the subject is well-worn. It is not. The book…deserves to win awards in two disciplines: Art history and American history.…"—Tyler Green, Modern Art Notes 
Garden & Gun
“A great art history tour and coffee-table topper.”—Garden & Gun
Antiques and the Arts Weekly - Stephen May
“Provocative and insightful.”—Stephen May, Antiques and the Arts Weekly
 "Harvey's book is perfect for lovers of American art and history. It has an absorbing, engrossing power of its own akin to the power of what Ken Burns's The Civil War had for the television audience of the '90s. It gives us a profound sense of what the Civil War really was like, how people felt and reacted to it, and its enduring impact on American life. . . . Extraordinary." --
JM Northern Media LLC - Great Southeast Festival
Winner in the Photography/Art category at the 2013 Great Southeast Book Festival.
"The Civil War and American Art is a glorious companion piece to a moving, beautifully curated, perspective-altering show. . . . Harvey’s book is perfect for lovers of American art and history.” —PopMatters
The Nation
“a beautiful companion volume…”—The Nation
The New Yorker - Peter Schjeldahl
“Harvey’s catalogue text stands as a monumental, often thrilling feat of detailed scholarship”—Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker
North Carolina Historical Review
“One of the great publishing triumphs of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.”—North Carolina Historical Review
Choice - Outstanding Academic Title
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the Art & Architecture Category.
Library Journal
Harvey's (chief curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum; An Impressionist Sensibility: The Halff Collection) extensive catalog assesses the impact of a national cataclysm—the American Civil War—on landscape, genre painting, and the then-new medium of photography. Other than Winslow Homer, not many artists have been studied in relation to the war's impact on their work. Here Harvey looks closely at works created between the late 1850s and the centennial year 1876 to demonstrate how the conflict shaped visual culture even when it was not its direct subject matter. Although photographers brought the battlefield to civilians in ways not previously possible, no great historical paintings emerged from the carnage. And although abolition and emancipation were topics of visual interest in many media, in the end American artists turned away from an antebellum focus on nationality and towards a postwar interest in cosmopolitism, and particularly the Paris-centered contemporary-European art world. VERDICT Harvey skillfully integrates literature and journalism into a thoughtful and rich narrative of this pivotal period. An important cohesive assessment for scholars that is also broadly accessible and well-illustrated, this book is recommended for all collections.—Jack Perry Brown, Art Inst. of Chicago Libs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300187335
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 676,742
  • Product dimensions: 10.50 (w) x 12.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Eleanor Jones Harvey is senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her books include The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Yale) and The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830–1880.

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