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

It was a different story for the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009


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.’”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The war we want to forget'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 221 February 2011