Controversies USA

The war we want to forget

Why American art museums are reluctant to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War

Homer's "A Visit from the Old Mistress"

WASHINGTON, DC. 150 years ago this month, seven Southern states seceded from the Union, igniting the American Civil War. A defining event in US history, it lasted four years, claimed nearly a million lives, and led to the abolition of slavery. Yet despite its impact even today, there is no major art exhibition planned in the US in 2011.

It was a different story for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009. Congress created a special commission to plan the nation’s commemoration and there were numerous exhibitions. In Washing­ton, DC, the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art and National Museum of American History celebrated Lincoln’s life and explored his image. The New York Historical Society organised the ambitious “Lincoln and New York” show in 2009, a version of which is touring nationally. Art museums are also commemorating the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta’s touring exhibition “Road to Freedom”.

The American Civil War had a major impact on some artists and photographers, with images of the dead, by the likes of Matthew Brady, shock­ing a public more accustomed to romanticised images of conflict.

“America has so many inhibitions about remembering the Civil War, and has had from the beginning,” said Harold Holzer (senior vice president of external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), who is an authority on Lincoln. Holzer was the chief historian for “Lincoln and New York” and served as co-chairman of the Lincoln bicentennial commission. “The reviews that greeted the unveiling of some of the key paintings was mixed. They were critical of the idea of remembering something so unpleasant.” Holzer also added that the centenary of the war in 1961 was “a mess in many ways”. Southern states did not want it used to advance the civil rights movement, insisting on “a romanticised recollection”.

A notable exception to the current silence is the Smith­sonian American Art Museum, which is organising a major survey examining the war’s impact on American art, specifically on landscape and genre painting. Details of “The Civil War and American Art”, to open in November 2012, are still being finalised but it is due to include the key paintings from the war, not least of which is Winslow Homer’s Prisoners from the Front, 1866, and Home Sweet Home, 1863. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art, respectively, have agreed to lend the paintings, which will join the Smithsonian’s own A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876, by Homer. The Metropolitan is now in discussion with the Smith­sonian to bring the show from Washington, DC, to New York in 2013, The Art Newspaper has learned.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art opened an exhibition last month of drawings by John Becker and fellow war artist-reporters (until 3 April). Organised by Boston’s McMullen Museum of Art, the drawings are from a private collection. A spokes­woman for the Virginia museum said it was “surprising that so few museums have undertaken exhibitions, but we are, of course, in the former capital of the Confederacy”.

Eleanor Jones Harvey, the chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and curator of “The Civil War and American Art”, said the dearth of shows is in part due to the scarcity of high calibre paintings that directly address the conflict. Compared with the Revolution­ary War with its clear-cut enemy—the British —there is no glut of heroic canvases for the Civil War. “There was no market,” said Harvey, “for Ameri­cans fighting Amer­icans” ad­ding: “How do you commemorate something that we haven’t in a sense really gotten over?”

Winslow Homer’s reputation was made by the war. As an artist-correspondent he created battlefield sketch­es that would be used as material for his later oil paintings. The reason his work had such an impact, Harvey suggested, is because [Homer] pointed out that: “We’re not done yet.” Despite winning the war, the North still needed to come to terms with the issues that led to the disunion. Prisoners from the Front illustrates this message through the “cocky, assured, self-possessed” defiance of the captured Confederate soldiers. “Winslow is saying: ‘You may have stopped fighting on the battlefield, but unless you fix this, we’re not done yet.’” This sentiment is echoed ten years later in A Visit from the Old Mistress, which shows African-American women staring down their former white mistress. “It’s got so much anger coming off of it I’ve seen people take a step back.”

Harvey said most museums were quick to agree to loans but as the anniversary rolls around, some may be belatedly realising they should organise something at home. “It is incredibly difficult to get people to let go of works by Winslow Homer. The first wave of answers was: ‘Sure, no problem.’ Now they are saying, ‘Oh, maybe we want to keep this here.’”

Winslow Homer's "Prisoners from the Front", 1866
More from The Art Newspaper


9 Feb 11
16:11 CET


The paintings of key abolitionists such as those painted by artist Francis B. Carpenter speak to the commitment of portrait artists to portray the lightning rods of the grass roots movement. Why hasn't a major gallery like the National Portrait Gallery in Washington wrapped their heads around Carpenter's oeuvre along with his "First Reading of The Emancipation Proclamation" which also created the most popular print of the mid-nineteenth A.H. Ritchie's engraving from Carpenter's study of the same?

9 Feb 11
14:59 CET


About 75% of public school teachers -- in North Dakota as well as North Carolina -- mis-teach the Civil War today. Between 1890 and 1940, neo-Confederates successfully floated the myth that secession was for "states' rights," which it was not, and not about slavery, which it was. As one result, museum exhibits often still pair "Civil War" with the anachronistic name "War Between the States." Museum curators worry about stirring up a controversy between Sons of Confederate Veterans and historians. Unwillingness to talk about the Civil War helps keep us all stupid. I hope museums will use the next four years to get it right. The book THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER can help, since it contains irrefutable documents.

9 Feb 11
14:58 CET


For those near Ann Arbor, the Clements Library at the University of Michigan will be mounting a Civil War exhibit at the end of February.

8 Feb 11
19:18 CET


Of course there isn't an exhibition commoratting the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The entire art world would have to be honest with itself which it is not prepared to do. To quote Eleanor Jones Harvey "there's no market," and this is a problem we all face. It does a disservice to our entire country in terms of our true history.

7 Feb 11
17:33 CET


Perhaps an exhibition called "We're Not Done Yet" could examine works from the Civil War through the present should open.

4 Feb 11
16:17 CET


Unfortunately the Myth of the Lost Cause almost immediately began to distort the popular perception of the Civil War, such distortion continuing in many quarters to this date.

3 Feb 11
20:8 CET


The Nassau County Museum of Art (located on Long Island in New York) had an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It is called "For Us the Living" THE CIVIL WAR in paintings by Mort Kunstler. It just closed in January 2011.

3 Feb 11
19:28 CET


I think people are more interested in commemorating the end of the war vs the beginning, or the Succession which was before the beginning. Where as your civil war was long ago 150 years is not far enough away to negate still tenderness for a number of Americans. Maybe in 4 years we will have the museum shows.

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