The Civil War and American Art


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Eleanor Jones Harvey

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A sweeping survey of the impact of the Civil War on American painting and photography in the 19th century

The Civil War redefined America and forever changed American art. Its grim reality, captured through the new medium of photography, was laid bare. American artists could not approach the conflict with the conventions of European history painting, which glamorized the hero on the battlefield. Instead, many artists found ways to weave the war into works of art that considered the human narrative—the daily experiences of soldiers, slaves, and families left behind. Artists and writers wrestled with the ambiguity and anxiety of the Civil War and used landscape imagery to give voice to their misgivings as well as their hopes for themselves and the nation.

This important book looks at the range of artwork created before, during, and following the war, in the years between 1852 and 1877. Author Eleanor Jones Harvey surveys paintings made by some of America's finest artists, including Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford, Winslow Homer, and Eastman Johnson, and photographs taken by George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 

Harvey examines American landscape and genre painting and the new medium of photography to understand both how artists made sense of the war and how they portrayed what was a deeply painful, complex period in American history. Enriched by firsthand accounts of the war by soldiers, former slaves, abolitionists, and statesmen, Harvey's research demonstrates how these artists used painting and photography to reshape American culture. Alongside the artworks, period voices (notably those of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman) amplify the anxiety and dilemmas of wartime America. 

Published in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Exhibition Schedule:

Smithsonian American Art Museum11/16/12–04/28/13

The Metropolitan Museum of Art05/21/13–09/02/13

Eleanor Jones Harvey is senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her books include The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Yale) and The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830–1880.


Smithsonian American Art Museum11/16/12–04/28/13

The Metropolitan Museum of Art05/21/13–09/02/13

The Civil War and American Art is a scholarly and a narrative achievement both harrowing and sublime. Eleanor Jones Harvey has written a keenly critical and often lyrical assessment of the war she calls all but “unpaintable.” In genre painting that captured universal meanings out of local episodes in the ugly ironies of war, and especially in the new moods, metaphors, and forms that landscape painters drew from the war, Harvey demonstrates a profound, seismic influence of history on art. But she also brilliantly demonstrates that artists, even the photographers, could not so much re-make the actual history of our Armageddon as they could represent what we might indirectly see or learn from such a withering and mythic experience as modern war.”--David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

“Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War and American Art is the rare book that connects the dots between art and history so well that the reader assumes that the subject is well-worn. It is not. The book…deserves to win awards in two disciplines: Art history and American history.…"—Tyler Green, Modern Art Notes 

“A great art history tour and coffee-table topper.”—Garden & Gun

“Provocative and insightful.”—Stephen May, Antiques and the Arts Weekly 

"The latest from Harvey. . . provides a nuanced, sensitive, and deeply informed accounting of a major period in the history of American art. . . . The comprehensive study manages to remain engaging across its redolent academic and historical interests, creating a sincere excitement appropriate to Harvey's always insightful and vital reckoning with America's scarred past.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review 

 "Harvey's book is perfect for lovers of American art and history. It has an absorbing, engrossing power of its own akin to the power of what Ken Burns's The Civil War had for the television audience of the '90s. It gives us a profound sense of what the Civil War really was like, how people felt and reacted to it, and its enduring impact on American life. . . . Extraordinary." —PopMatters

"The Civil War and American Art is a glorious companion piece to a moving, beautifully curated, perspective-altering show. . . . Harvey’s book is perfect for lovers of American art and history.” —PopMatters

“Harvey skillfully integrates literature and journalism into a thoughtful and rich narrative of this pivotal period. An important cohesive assessment for scholars that is also broadly accessible and well-illustrated…”—Library Journal, starred review

“a beautiful companion volume…”—The Nation

“Harvey’s catalogue text stands as a monumental, often thrilling feat of detailed scholarship”—Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker
“One of the great publishing triumphs of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.”—North Carolina Historical Review

Winner in the Photography/Art category at the 2013 Great Southeast Book Festival.
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013 in the Art & Architecture Category.
ISBN: 9780300187335
Publication Date: December 3, 2012
Publishing Partner: Published in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum
352 pages, 10 x 12 1/2
151 color + 63 b/w illus.
The Voyage of the Icebergs

Frederic Church’s Arctic Masterpiece

Eleanor Jones Harvey; With contributions by Gerald L.

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