The coming storm: American landscape painting and the Civil War

In the spring of 1860 Martin Johnson Heade exhibited Approaching Thunder Storm (Fig. 2), depicting a darkening sky over an inlet near Point Judith, Rhode Island. Its stark contrasts and queasy weather attracted the attention of viewers and reviewers alike. The atmosphere in the painting is so oppressive as to have palpable weight, the opaque black mass signaling a drop in barometric pressure that squeezes the air from the artist's usually limpid skies. The metaphor was a popular trope with abolitionist preachers such as Henry Ward Beecher and his colleague Noah Schenck, each of whom went so far as to purchase one of Heade's thunderstorm paintings; Schenck owned this one.5 Beecher, Schenck, and a host of like-minded preachers across the North spoke of the rising need to confront slavery as a Christian moral battle, to stand up and take action in "these o'er darkened days."6

Heade's thunderstorms, unusual for his work at the time, hint at the changes being wrought in landscape painting as artists infused their images with a sense of the nation's growing turmoil.

The summer and early fall of 1860 was an unusually active time for atmospheric phenomena. Comets, meteors, even the Aurora Borealis were visible up and down the Atlantic seaboard. On July 20, a meteor streaked across the eastern sky. Frederic Church witnessed the strange display and captured the beginning of the meteor's breakup in an unearthly painting titled Meteor of 1860 (Fig. 4), the double fireball shooting across the center of his small canvas like a rocket illuminating the night sky. Accounts of the meteor's transit filled newspapers all along the East Coast. In both North and South, commentators linked the eerie phenomenon to the lurking fear of war. Meteors had already come to be closely associated with the fiery abolitionist John Brown (Fig. 5), who led the assault on slaveholders in Pottawatomie, Kansas, in 1856 and murdered five of them. His fatal raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 only strengthened the association.7

Contemporary poets who likened Brown to a meteor included Herman Melville, whose "The Portent" of 1859 portrayed Brown as an equally disturbing force of nature. The poem concludes:

     But the streaming beard is shown

      (Weird John Brown),

      The meteor of the war.

Walt Whitman also witnessed the meteor. In "Year of Meteors (1859-60)" he reflects on Brown's hanging, and reiterates the connection between Brown's actions and the appearance of this particular meteor, comparing Brown to:

    ...the comet that came unannounced,

     out of the north, flaring in heaven,

    ...the strange huge meteor-procession,

     dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads,

    (A moment, a moment long, it sail'd its

     balls of unearthly light over our heads,

    Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)

[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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