If you know little about the Civil War conflict in the U.S. (1861-1865), a trip to the Smithsonian American Art Museum this weekend will supply a quick education. And if you know a lot about the Civil War, this is a big show commemorating the war’s 150th anniversary you do not want to miss.
It is the presentation of the war’s pain and toll upon art and artists, said Eleanor Jones Harvey, SAAM's senior curator, who directed the show and wrote the catalogue. "What do these artists tell us?" about the way citizens felt after the war, she asked.
Generally excluded among the 57 paintings and 18 photographs are classic battlefield scenes which often come to mind when the War Between the States is mentioned. This exhibition, instead, provides rich detail about the common people and the war's effects upon them, told in mostly chronological order in arresting land and peoplescapes.
Some well-known artists represented are Winslow Homer (13 works in the show), Frederic Church (7), Sanford Gifford (8), Eastman Johnson (6) and Alfred Bierstadt (2).
Lesser known is Martin Johnson Heade whose Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859, not only foretells the war but the style of Edwin Hopper (1882-1967) whose artistic fame came 75 years later.
When speaking about slavery, President Abraham Lincoln used the words "coming storm," a term adopted by many abolitionist preachers for their sermons, one of whom bought this work.
Viewers will also find Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853, by Robert S. Duncanson, known as the first African-American artist to enjoy international acclaim and whose Still Live with Fruit and Nuts, 1848, was added last year at the National Gallery of Art.
While at the SAAM exhibition, leave several minutes to study Eastman Johnson's Negro Life at the South, 1859, which depicts blacks with various skin tones, alluding to mixed races. See the white cat entering slave quarters.
Consider the significance of Julian Scott's Surrender of a Confederate Soldier, 1873. The war had ended when Mr. Scott, a member of the Union army, painted a sympathetic portrait of his opponent to perhaps signify the unification of the country.
Photographs by George Barnard show the "Hell Hole," at New Hope Church, Georgia in 1866, destruction in Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina at war's end, and the scene of General James B. McPherson's death July 22, 1864 near Bald Hill outside Atlanta.
Six photographs made of the aftermath of the Battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam by Alexander Gardner are included. The bloodiest single-day battle in American history only 70 miles from Washington, Sharpsburg claimed the lives of 22,717 men on September 17, 1862. The pictures show bodies of Confederates upon the ground. Two weeks later President Lincoln visited the battlefield.
The collection moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it will open Memorial Day, May 27, 2013.
Elizabeth Broun, SAAM's director, called the Civil War exhibition "one of the most important shows we've offered in a long time," and the "brainchild" of Ms. Harvey.
To obtain the art for the show took "elaborate negotiations" and persuading lenders to loan their works for the research-based presentation, said Ms. Harvey.
What: "The Civil War and American Art"
When: 11:30 a.m. - 7 p.m., through Sunday, April 28, 2013
Where: The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets, N.W., Washington, D.C.
How much: Free admission
Metro station: Gallery Place-Chinatown or walk from Metro Center
For more information: 202-633-7970 or 202-633-1000