The coming storm: American landscape painting and the Civil War

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2012 |

The role of the Civil War in redefining America is well known. What is less well understood is the profound way in which the conflict changed American Art.

Between 1859, when war was imminent, and the war's end in 1865 writers and artists created their works surrounded by, and sometimes suffocated by, the impact of the war on every facet of their lives. For a public in the habit of viewing nature metaphorically, landscape paintings of the period were especially rich in portents of war and the moral meaning of the conflict.1

Poems, speeches, sermons, and letters invoked stormy weather, volcanic eruptions, and celestial events to describe the war and its consequences, and this imagery found its way into landscape painting in a manner that was immediately recognizable to most viewers. The most powerful of these works of art were charged with metaphor and layered complexity that elevated them to the American equivalent of grand manner history paintings. Landscape imagery illuminated the growing destabilization of the country; landscape painting became the emotional barometer of the national psyche.

That this should have been so is only natural since American landscape painting had developed in tandem with an appreciation for the physical and metaphorical qualities of the American wilderness. During the 1840s Thomas Cole and his close friend William Cullen Bryant, the leading landscape poet of his generation, painted and wrote compelling pictures of America as a place, a concept, and a spiritual state of mind (see Fig. 3). The powerful appeal of this metaphor launched a tradition of literary essays and poems that glorified the promise of America embedded in the American landscape and inspired the generation of artists whose paintings became known as the Hudson River school.

In 1852 a writer for the American Whig Review had described the power of landscape painting to express human emotions metaphorically: "When landscape enters the mysterious confines of allegory, combining animate with inanimate nature, it rises to a higher sphere of power....A storm may be represented; trees uprent, and driven clouds, and water tortured and foamy, may shadow forth the terrific power of the elements. In such a case we see the mind working in and upon these natural objects, like hate, fear, love, friendship, and the multiplex emotions of the soul upon the physical man."2 In other words, landscape paintings could convey the intensity of emotion usually reserved for the human narrative. That manner of looking at works of art allegorically was a habit of mind that we have lost, but it was second nature to a nineteenth-century viewer.

Meteorology provided powerful metaphors for the increased tension as war loomed. Long before the opening shots at Fort Sumter were fired the depiction of storms signaled unstable times. In 1854 Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham had predicted that the political tension was "a brewing in the north, which will sweep onward with a fury, which no human force can withstand."3 In the anxious months between December 1860 and the following April, one southern state after another seceded from the Union. As each day passed, Americans could only watch and wait, while the storm clouds gathered, black on the horizon.

The earlier landscape imagery manifesting God's beneficence gave way to a sense of apocalyptic dread that, over the issue of slavery, the country had lost its way. Among abolitionists and proslavery advocates alike, the fear was essentially the same: that God would judge both sides as morally bereft; that inaction in the North to abolish slavery and action in the South to perpetuate it marked them as equally culpable. As a presidential candidate in 1860 Lincoln (Fig. 1) spoke of a "coming storm," when God would run out of patience on the issue of slavery.4

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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