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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


Our public preferred great landscapes, which spoke to our continent-spanning ambitions and pride of place, and folksy scenes of domestic life.

Yet even before war was declared, artists incorporated current events into such works, though more subtly than we're now used to.

Frederick Douglass, in a June 1861 address, described race slavery as North America's moral volcano, due to erupt explosively. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said of the looming cataclysm, "I see a storm coming."

So, not surprisingly, portents of change in the form of storm clouds, crimson skies, burned trees and smoking volcanoes swiftly populated landscape paintings. Viewers understood the metaphors.

Before Fort Sumter, there were even horizontal fireballs evoked by Walt Whitman's poem "Year of Meteors" and Hudson River artist Frederic Edwin Church's eery "Meteor of 1860."

Church also produced 1861's startling "Our Banner in the Sky," his homage to friend and writer Theodore Winthrop, a contributor to The Atlantic magazine killed at Big Bethel--the war's first land battle--near Fort Monroe in Hampton.

Even stranger and wilder are five mammoth landscapes--with icebergs, a giant volcano, the aurora borealis, a double rainbow and the golden light of Yosemite Valley--grouped near the end. Each is an otherworldly masterwork that rewards time studying their myriad details.

Equally affecting are paired paintings by Conrad Chapman and Union soldier Sanford Robinson Gifford; Homer's iconic moments in Petersburg's trenches and the woods of The Wilderness; George Barnard's chilling photos as he moved with William Tecumseh Sherman's army; Eastman Johnson's humane insights into African-American life; and a narrow gallery of Gardner's photos of the dead at Antietam juxtaposed with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

From the United Kingdom, The Independent calls this show "an exhibition that anyone interested in the soul of the United States should visit."

Agreed. With an exclamation point.

Timeline: bit.ly/cwaatime Videos: bit.ly/cwaavids Teacher's guide: bit.ly/cwaateach

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029
Email: cschemmer@freelancestar.com

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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