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Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit brings fresh meaning to Civil War imagery

 Union soldier-artist Julian Scott painted 'Surrender of a Confederate Soldier, 1873.'
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Date published: 1/10/2013



IF YOU'RE AN artist, how should you respond to the confusion and horror of war?

That's the profound question posed by a sensitive and sweeping exhibition now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The scope of "The Civil War and American Art" is plain in its title. And there seems little question this is the defining art exhibit for the sesquicentennial of the nation's defining moment.

It packs many punches. The show--with 57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs--brings home the conflict's human slaughter and economic devastation, connects the dots between the Civil War and civil rights, and conveys the wonder and uncertainty of those who lived through it as to how events would bear out.

Yet for all its power and pathos, the exhibit is restrained, not trying to be comprehensive, but rather to clearly communicate its chosen themes.

And so it works. Even if you can spend only an hour or so in its splendor, a visitor will probably leave understanding how the war:

Transformed American landscape painting, which artists adapted to signal the public's changing moods about what was happening on the battlefields and the society at large.

Proved photography's power to shred prior notions of war's glory and heroism.

Induced the bravest and best painters of genre scenes to tackle difficult, politically charged subjects, aiming to change hearts and minds for the sake of a better future.

For more literal-minded visitors (count me in), there are also terrific scenes from the front--whether it is camp life by Winslow Homer, Charleston and its forts by Confederate artists Conrad Wise Chapman and John Gadsby Chapman, or the haunting prints of lensmen Alexander Gardner and George Barnard.

But if one only stops and thinks about it for a minute, there's little mystery that most wartime painters didn't depict battles' grim and gruesome gore.

First, there was the question of timely access, which even the photographers and newspaper correspondents struggled with. And then there was the question of public appetite.

"There was no market for pictures of American killing each other," says senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey, a Virginia native.

Also, Americans had never developed a taste for painting in the European grand manner. Huge canvases depicting victorious generals (save for George Washington) weren't our thing.

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What: "The Civil War and American Art"

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW, Washington, D.C. When: Through April 28. 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily Admission: Free Note: With a remarkable Civil War history all its own, the museum is near Verizon Center and Ford's Theatre in a district frequented by Clara Barton, Walt Whitman and Mathew Brady. Across the street from Metro's Gallery Place/Chinatown station. Good restaurants abound. Info: 202 633-1000; bit.ly/cwaamega