Anxious, Turbulent Skies in Masterful Landscapes

Frederic Edwin Church’s depiction of the volcanic eruption in Ecuador -- Cotopaxi, painted in 1862 and exhibited the following year. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts.

Frederic Edwin Church’s depiction of the volcanic eruption in Ecuador — Cotopaxi, painted in 1862 and shown the following year. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts.

Who expects that gigantic, bold 18th-century people-free landscapes by Bierstadt and Church to bear the heft of telling the anxious backstory of America before, during, and after the Civil War?

It’s true. Big landscapes are the booknds to the dramatic story told by the Smithsonian Museum of American Art’s exhibition to honor the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, American Painting and the Civil War, installed through September 2 on the upper and lower levels of the Met’s Lehman Wing.

Seeing the stunning upper-gallery works within the context of America’s troubled times is a must. You’ll never look again at a Bierstadt or Church again without checking its date to see if it was painted in the 1859-1865 range.

Sanford R. Giffins’s 1863 oil, A Coming Storm, says it all. Retouched by the artist in 1880. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sanford R. Giffins’s 1863 oil, A Coming Storm, says it all. Retouched by the artist in 1880. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Hear Smithsonian curator Eleanor Jones Harvey’s three-minute introduction to how these magnificent landscapes became the “emotional barometer” of the country and what approach genre painters took in the midst of changing times. Then, check out the Smithsonian’s nice timeline and click on Church’s Meteor of 1860 and Our Banner in the Sky from 1861 to see what was in the news while these were being created in the studio.

You’ll find Sanford Gilfford’s A Coming Storm (1863) in the timeline in 1865. Ironically, this was owned by Shakespearean superstar Edwin Booth right after it was painted, but before his brother actor John Wilkes changed history and trashed the family name. When Melville saw the painting in a New York gallery a few weeks later in April 1865, he felt the tragic irony so profoundly that he had to write a poem to process it all.

Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, exhibited in 1865, one year after Lincoln signed legislation declaring this a public reserve. Source: Birmingham Museum of Art.

Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, exhibited in 1865, one year after Lincoln signed legislation declaring this a public reserve. Source: Birmingham Museum of Art.

Church, Homer, and Gifford also painted camp life during the War, and those up-close-and-personal works are also featured in the show, alongside very precise oils of Confederate encampments by Conrad Wise Chapman. Thanks to Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy, which loaned the works by Chapman, you’ll get to see the famous experimental submarine, The Hunley as it was in 1863. The submersible was raised from the depths near Charleston in 2000 with the tar bucket you’ll see in Chapman’s oil painting

But back to the giant landscape that closes the show upstairs. Bierstadt paid someone to take his place in the Union Army, so maybe that’s why his mind was free concentrate on more placid, ethereal works, such as the show’s finale, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California of 1865 – a immersive look into the California Eden that Lincoln’s signature in 1864 preserved as public land and away from scarred landscapes of the battlefield states.

What’s the connection between Arctic exploration and unusual nighttime phenomenon of 1864? Watch this video to see how Church used them to convey the mood of the country through his powerful, gigantic, beautiful Aurora Borealis.

See a slide show of 34 paintings in the show and access the full set of video podcasts on the Smithsonian’s web site.

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