Smithsonian American Art Museum Presents the Only Major Exhibition To Examine the Impact of the Civil War on American Art

Exhibition Will Travel to New York City in 2013
November 13, 2012
News Release
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The Smithsonian American Art Museum presents the only major exhibition that examines how America’s artists represented the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath as part of the war’s 150th anniversary commemoration. Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford—four of America’s finest artists of the era—anchor the exhibition.

“The Civil War and American Art” is on view at the museum’s main building in Washington, D.C., from Nov. 16 through April 28, 2013. The exhibition is organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the only additional venue for the exhibition.

“The great painters responded to the mood of the nation during this profound internal conflict,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We believe the exhibition will attract a national audience that wants to understand the powerful emotional effect the events of the 1860s had on America.”

“The Civil War and American Art” follows the conflict from palpable unease on the eve of war, to heady optimism that it would be over with a single battle, to a growing realization that this conflict would not end quickly and a deepening awareness of issues surrounding emancipation and the need for reconciliation. Genre and landscape painting captured the transformative impact of the war, not traditional history painting.

“This exhibition will show how our artists responded in the moment to a great national crisis and how it changed our ambition for America’s civilization, reinventing the Founders’ ideals for a new age,” said Harvey. “The landscapes and genre paintings in the exhibition gave voice to our highest ideals and deepest concerns during the war that has been called the ‘second American Revolution.’”

The exhibition features 75 works—57 paintings and 18 vintage photographs. The artworks were chosen for their aesthetic power in conveying the intense emotions of the period. Homer and Johnson addressed issues such as emancipation and reconciliation. Church and Gifford contended with the destruction of the idea that America was a “New Eden.” Most of the artworks in the exhibition were made during the war, when it was unclear how long it might last and which side would win.

The exhibition also includes battlefield photography, which carried the gruesome burden of documenting the carnage and destruction. The visceral and immediate impact of these images by Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and George Barnard freed the fine arts to explore the deeper significance of the Civil War rather than chronicle each battle.


A major scholarly catalog, authored by Harvey and published by the museum in association with Yale University Press, focuses on the coming of age of American art during the Civil War. It will be available for purchase ($65 hardcover, $45 softcover) in the museum store, through the museum’s online shop and in bookstores nationwide.

Online Features and Audio Tour

A number of online features are available at, including a slide show of selected artworks included in the exhibition and a timeline linking artworks to key events during the Civil War. A video podcast featuring commentary by Harvey will be available on the museum’s website and through iTunes. A series of monthly posts by Harvey on the museum’s blog “Eye Level” will give readers insight into intersections between American art and the Civil War; read the posts at

An audio tour about the museum’s historic building and events that took place there during the Civil War, including President Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural ball, is available online at or by calling (202) 595-1852.

Public Programs

A robust series of public programs will accompany the exhibition’s presentation, including gallery talks, lectures, films, performances and family activities. Harvey will give a gallery talk Thursday, Dec. 6, at 6 p.m. Renowned Civil War scholar and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust will give a talk Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, at 7 p.m. Additional programs and details will be available on the museum’s website and in a separate press release.


A daylong symposium, “Effects of the Civil War on American Art,” is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 16, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Harvey will deliver the keynote address. Additional speakers are John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art at Smith College; Randall Griffin, professor of art history at Southern Methodist University; Maurie McInnis, professor of American art and material culture at the University of Virginia; Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of photography at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Peter Wood, emeritus professor of history at Duke University.

Advance registration is required at The symposium will be webcast live and archived for future viewing. The program is supported by the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding the American Experience.

A second symposium featuring contemporary artists, “Why the Civil War Still Matters to American Art,” will take place in March 2013. Details will be available on the museum’s website as participants are confirmed.

Educational Initiatives

The museum is producing a curriculum guide for educators to use in their classrooms and to prepare for a visit to the exhibition. An online version of the guide will be available at

Several educational events will be offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including school tours and professional development programs. A workshop for teachers will be offered Saturday, Dec. 1, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. An “Evening for Educators,” a professional-development event cosponsored by the museum and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, will take place Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and will include a keynote address by Harvey and a reception in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard; registration is required. Details and registration information is online at

A special exhibition-related videoconference will be offered for ninth- through 12th-grade teachers and their students. The program combines interactive videoconferences and classroom activities to prompt discussion of the Civil War conflict as seen through the art of the period. The spring series begins Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. The museum’s Artful Connections tour, “Civil War: A House Divided,” also is available for seventh- through 12th-grade teachers and their students.


After closing in Washington, D.C., the exhibition will travel to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (May 21, 2013–Sept. 2, 2013).


“The Civil War and American Art” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Anschutz Foundation, Ludmila and Conrad Cafritz, Christie’s, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Tania and Tom Evans, Norma Lee and Morton Funger, Dorothy Tapper Goldman, Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, Joffa and Bill Kerr, Thelma and Melvin Lenkin, Henry Luce Foundation, Paula and Peter Lunder, Margery and Edgar Masinter, Barbro and Bernard Osher, Walter and Lucille Rubin Foundation, Patricia Rubin and Ted Slavin, and Holly and Nick Ruffin. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, “Treasures to Go.” This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the vision and creativity of Americans with artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. Its National Historic Landmark building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Follow the museum on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, iTunes, ArtBabble and YouTube. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website:

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