NORMAN — Images of boats serenely floating in the great Pacific quickly changed to dark storm clouds expressing fear, turmoil and conflict as John Wilmerding, American art professor at Princeton University, flipped through a slide show during his talk “Visualizing the Civil War: Three American Artists” at the University of Oklahoma event “Teach-In” on Monday.
OU’s Teach-In is a celebration of and commitment to teaching American history. This year’s event focused on the Civil War and featured lectures from top historians on this crucial period of turmoil in American history.
Wilmerding began his lecture by comparing artwork produced during the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. Paintings from the Revolutionary War depicted violence and the action of war while those produced during the Civil War have all action outside the frame of reference.
“There are no scenes of outright action,” Wilmerding explained while turning his slideshow presentation to the image of soldiers standing in a group and to another image of a soldier sitting in a tree preparing to shoot. “The moment itself is not there.”
Wilmerding said he believed paintings from the Civil War do not focus on the action as the subject matter for three reasons. The first reason being the cultural response to the turmoil of the Civil War was largely depicted in literature. The memoir and the autobiography became the major outlet for expression, he said.
The second reason Wilmerding said he believed paintings from the late 1850s and ‘60s do not depict war action is because photography had just been introduced to the country. The Civil War was the first opportunity photographers had the chance to take photos. Thirdly, Wilmerding said the American landscape itself had become the new image of American identity. Nature was articulated as the great American experience and a continental idea, he said.