The coming storm: American landscape painting and the Civil War

  1 As one writer for the Atlantic Monthly noted, weather was a literal influence on the outcome of war, too. "A hard frost, a sudden thaw, a ‘hot spell,' a ‘cold snap,' a contrary wind, a long drought, a storm of sand,-all these things have had their part in deciding the destinies of dynasties, the fortunes of races, and the fate of nations. Leave the weather out of history, and it is as if night were left out of the day, and winter out of the year" (C. C. Hazewell, "Weather in War," Atlantic Monthly, vol. 9, no. 55 [May 1862], p. 593).  2 "The American School of Art," The American Whig Review, vol. 16, no. 92 (August 1852), pp. 138-148.  3 George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins, May 29, 1854, in Curtis Burnham Rollins, "Letters of George Caleb Bingham to James S. Rollins," Missouri Historical Review, vol. 31 (July 1938), p. 185, as  quoted in Nancy Rash, The Paintings and Politics of George Caleb Bingham (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1991), p. 185.  4 The metaphor was well established by the time Lincoln invoked it. Of slavery, Jesse Torrey wrote, "It is a black, accumulating, threatening-thundercloud, in our moral horizon, the sudden explosion of which, might produce dangerous and fatal consequences" (A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States [Philadelphia, 1817], p. 18; quoted in Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War [Mercer University Press, Macon, Ga., 2002], p. 22).  5 Heade was among Beecher's occasional parishioners at his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, along with fellow artists Frederic Church and Eastman Johnson. Beecher already owned one of Heade's 1859 thunderstorm paintings when Schenck acquired Approaching Thunder Storm shortly after it first went on public view; see Sarah Cash, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Tex., 1994), p. 44. Schenck may have had his newly acquired painting in mind when he delivered a sermon in May 1861 in which he exhorted his flock to see in the storms both political upheaval and each man's spiritual duty. He said, "From the storms which sweep the political horizon, it is held, Christ's officers should . . . go forth to the fulfillment of their plainly revealed duty, and breast the storms which sweep across the spiritual horizon" (Noah Hunt Schenck, Christian Moderation: The Word in Season to the Church and the Country, a Sermon Preached in Emmanuel Church, Baltimore, on the Evening of Whitsunday, May 19, 1861, Cornell Digital Archive, Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, pp. 16, 23).  

6 Schenck, Christian Moderation, p. 24.  7 Tony Horwitz has written a lucid and engaging account of John Brown's life in Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011).  8 "Arctic Explorations. Lecture of Dr. J. S. [sic] Hayes before the New-York Geographical and Statistical Society," New York Times, November 15, 1861, p. 2.  9 Quoted in George W. Cullum, "Biographical Sketch of Doctor Isaac I. Hayes," Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, vol. 13 (1881), p. 114. In describing the otherworldly aspects of the nocturnal Arctic landscape, Hayes set up the polar region as Eden's alter ego: "filling the mind with the overpowering consciousness of universal death-proclaiming the end of all things, and heralding the everlasting future. Its presence is unendurable.... I have seen no expression on the face of Nature so filled with terror as the silence of the arctic night" (quoted ibid., p. 116).  10 Prior to Hayes's departure for the far north, Church provided sketching lessons to the explorer, hoping he might return with drawings the artist could use for a painting based on the voyage. In fact, Hayes's sketches would play a significant role four years later when Church painted his Aurora Borealis. For accounts of their friendship in relation to this painting, see William H. Truettner, "The Genesis of Frederic Edwin Church's Aurora Borealis," Art Quarterly, vol. 31 (Autumn 1968), pp. 267-283; and Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of  The Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Dallas Museum of Art and Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002), p. 63.  11 Thomas Starr King, A Vacation among the Sierras: Yosemite in 1860, ed. John A. Hussey (Book Club of California, San Francisco, 1962),  p. xxxi. Starr King went on to play an active role in politics, with a particular interest in keeping California in the Union. He raised funds for the California Sanitary Commission and helped develop the Republican Party in the state. This activism was a natural extension of his sermons, the content of which stemmed from his longstanding friendships with Henry Ward Beecher and fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips.  12 Quoted in Nancy Anderson and Linda S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1991), p. 178.  13 The primary goal in 1864 was to forestall the advent of hydraulic mining in the Yosemite area, but from this pragmatic foundation emerged a far more visionary articulation of Yosemite as a sanctuary for all Americans. See George Dimock, Exploiting the View: Photographs of Yosemite and Mariposa by Carleton Watkins (Park-McCullough House, North Bennington, Vt., 1984), p. 17.  14 Legislation to protect Yosemite was introduced in the U. S. Senate on March 28, 1864, and was approved two days later "for public use, resort, and recreation...inalienable for all time"; see John F. Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1989), p. 130.  Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant into law on June 30, 1864.  15 Kevin Starr notes that in the nineteenth century, Yosemite was a symbol of America as a promised land, bestowed by God on chosen people; see Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Oxford University Press, New York, 1973), p. 183.  Kate Nearpass Ogden also links the Edenic vision of California as attractive to Lincoln during the Civil War in her essay "California as Kingdom Come," in Yosemite: Art of an American Icon, ed. Amy Scott (Autry National Center in Association with the University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2006), p. 33.  16 Herman Melville, "The Coming Storm. A Picture by S. R. Gifford, and owned by E. B. Included in the N. A. Exhibition, Apr. 1865," in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (New York, 1866).  17 Cara Montane, "Another Woman's View of the New Academy of Design," New York Leader, June 3, 1865, p. 1.  18 Comments of J. F. Kensett, president, Sixth Annual Report of Artists' Fund Society of the City of New York, 1865-66 (New York, 1866), p. 12. Remarks made at the meeting held Tuesday evening, February 13, 1866; quoted in Ellen H. Johnson, "Kensett Revisited," Art Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1 (1957), p. 92, n34.

 

 

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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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