Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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What a Field of Wildflowers Can Tell You

Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “A Coming Storm,” 1863, is one of 57 paintings in the stunning Smithsonian exhibition “The Civil War and American Art,” which also includes 18 vintage photographs from North and South. (COURTESY, SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM)

The key to a longstanding art-history riddle came to Eleanor Jones Harvey as she read the journals of two Texas soldiers who fought in the Battle of First Manassas.

What she discovered informs and illuminates “The Civil War and American Art,” the wondrous exhibition now gracing the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

The two men served in different units and were from different parts of the sprawling state, and there was no indication they knew each other.

Yet in their letters home, each man had described the scene of the Civil War’s first major land battle as like a field carpeted with red wildflowers.

To Dr. Harvey, who’d worked a decade at a Texas museum and seen fields rich with the hues of Indian Paintbrush and Texas Blue Bonnets, their metaphor required no explanation.

The two soldiers were describing a landscape drenched in blood, dotted with corpses so thick that one soldier said you could have walked from one end to the other without your feet ever touching the ground.

To their families back home, far from the war-torn Virginia Piedmont, the wildflower descriptions would have made instant sense, Harvey realized. They didn’t need to be graphic or explicit about what they had seen. The correspondents’ shared experiences and visual language communicated the idea, vividly.

The same kind of cultural telegraph linked artist and audience in countless works created during the American Civil War, the Smithsonian Institution senior curator understood.

Artists didn’t need to paint the horrors of combat; they could convey emotion and meaning with allegory and metaphor. In the run-up to war, Abraham Lincoln had spoken of “a coming storm,” as had others. Newspapers, pamphlets, letters and sermons were replete with references to odd atmospheric phenomena and strange landscapes.

The realization unlocked a great mystery that had puzzled Harvey since art-school days at the University of Virginia. Scholars had long assumed that 19th-century landscape artists steered clear of Civil War imagery.

Far from it. Artists’ works were chock-full of it, but it was in visual code, one that everyone of the period immediately understand.

This is a hasty description of a richer explanation Dr. Harvey kindly shared in a long interview this week for today’s short Weekender feature in The Free Lance-Star.

It’s late now, and I must turn in, but in coming days I’ll share much more about what she had to say and about this great show, the best art exhibition of the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Whatever else you do this winter, go see it. Maybe more than once. Take family; take friends. Be leisurely. You won’t regret it. And you don’t even have to love history, as I do, to thoroughly enjoy it.