The Norman Transcript

March 11, 2014

Art historian’s lecture visualizes Civil War

By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript

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.

Although, paintings from the Civil War do not focus on the action of the war, Wilmerding said profound insight into the nation during this national crisis could be garnered from three artists’ works in particular. Fitz Henry Lane, Martin Johnson Heade and Frederic Edwin Church’s use of light, landscape and subject matter follow the region as conflict heightened to the threshold of the nation tearing itself a part to the end of the war, Wilmerding explained.

Lane for example often painted twilight hour and played with light such that his paintings implicated the coming of good days to follow. Lane changed to focus on the coming of thunderstorms in the mid-1850s.

“This is a moment before the breaking of a storm. It’s not of the turmoil itself, but there is still a sense of impending violence,” Wilmerding said.

Lane’s other subject matters included ship wrecks and sunsets before the war moving to landscapes with a drained quality. Lane frequently painted low tide with exposed rocks and nothing happening as the war ended, and he approached his own death.

Heade’s landscapes also changed with the Civil War as he focused on marshes, which are an unstable environment then thunderstorms and then still, dry lake scenes.

Many of the artists during this time also used color to reflect the national conflict. Yellows and reds in sunsets portrayed optimism and later in more vibrant hues the violence of war. Black was also used as a new expressive color.

During the Civil War, Church focused his paintings on the Maine coast, sunsets and twilight paintings. And again, the sense of light in the artist’s paintings disappeared into darkness just as the nation turned to horror and suffering during the war.

“In 1856 something new and subtle comes into the picture. He takes the yellow of the sky which before had a sense of optimism and pushes it to almost an acidic color and takes pinks to lilacs. This shift in color palette is significant.”

Over the course of his career, Wilmerding has become one of the most widely known and respected authorities on American art. Wilmerding is the author of several books about artists and their portrayal of historical moments in American history including Fitz Henry Lane, John F. Peto, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Wilmerding is also a member of the American Philosophical Society and serves on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Katherine Parker


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