The coming storm: American landscape painting and the Civil War

John Frederick Kensett found a lyrical way to express the sense of loss that followed the conflict. In 1859 he had painted Sunrise among the Rocks of Paradise, Newport (Fig. 9) depicting the sheltered valley in morning tones of pink and pale gold, the rising sun's glow beginning to warm the surface of the rocks. The peaceful setting appears to be a kind of understated paradise, a sanctuary for the mind as well as the heart. After the war Kensett returned to this scene and painted a nearly identical composition. Yet the season and mood have changed. In Paradise Rocks: Newport (Fig. 10), a cold front moving in from the west suggests the chill of fall or early winter. The distant birds, like the somber mood, muted palette, and overcast sky all speak to the loss of paradise. Reviewer Cara Montane observed, "Some of his later pictures are as a strain of remembered music, soft and low as from the spirit land, speaking of the mourner who faints and hopes."17 Emily Dickinson's "There's something quieter than sleep," expresses a similar sense of loss in images that recall the landscape and birds in Kensett's composition:

     While simple-hearted neighbors

     Chat of the "Early Dead"-

     We-prone to periphrasis,

     Remark that Birds have fled!

In these two quiet paintings, Kensett created what amounts to a eulogy for the demise of the Hudson River school. They are a threnody for the shift from the literal landscape to the metaphorical, and ultimately to the psychological landscape, reflecting the mood and inner state of the artist. As president of the Artists' Fund Society, Kensett delivered remarks at the annual meeting in February 1866. He expressed his sorrow and relief that "four years of civil conflict which has covered God's green fields with fraternal blood-carrying ruin and desolation into countless homes-has ended, victory has crowned our arms, and smiling peace has once more come. The storm long threatened, which burst with such terrific and long-continued fury over the land, has given place to skies purified, to a nation redeemed and re-united."18 Yearning for the truth behind his words, Kensett expressed the hopes of his generation: that war could be truly over and that peace would usher in a reunited landscape, devoid of the trauma that had afflicted it.

That desire for calmer days resonated throughout the fine arts and literature following the Civil War. For some, the fine arts would be a refuge from the storm, a sanctuary from current events and a comforting hope that the New Eden of America would survive the national crisis. That would prove to be an unsustainable fantasy. By the end of the war, the emphasis within landscape painting had begun to change from a confident association of the nation's geographic features, destiny, and promise to a psychological reflection of the nation's conscience. Eden would be found in the establishment of parks as sanctuary. Americans began to see the land itself in need of protection. The postwar impulse to set aside emblematic landscapes would draw protective boundaries around what seemed most vulnerable-the American sense of identification with nature, a place where God's grace might still operate while America recovered from the effects of Civil War.

 

The Civil War and American Art is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D. C., from November 16 to April 28, 2013. The accompanying catalogue is by Eleanor Jones Harvey, the curator of the exhibition.

 

ELEANOR JONES HARVEY is the senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she served as chief curator from 2003 until 2012.

 

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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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