The coming storm: American landscape painting and the Civil War

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

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

  • Fig. 7. Looking Down YosemiteValley, California by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), 1865. “AB[con­joined]ierstadt/1865” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 64 ½ by 96 ½ inches. Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, gift of the Birmingham Public Library.



  • Fig. 6. Aurora Borealis by Church, 1865. Initialed and dated “FC 65” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 56 by 83 ½ inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Eleanor Blodgett. 



  • Fig. 4. Meteor of 1860 by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), 1860. Oil on canvas, 10 by 17 ½ inches. Collection of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt.



  • Fig. 8. A Coming Storm by Sanford R. Gifford (1823-1880), 1863, retouched and redated in 1880. Signed and dated “S.R. Gifford 1863” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 28 by 42 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of the McNeil Americana Collection.



  • Fig. 2. Approaching Thunder Storm by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), 1859. Signed and dated “M. J. Heade/1859” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 28 by 44 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Erving Wolf Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Erving Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf.



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 storm…now 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

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;)

Despite a growing interest in the sciences, Americans still looked to religion to help explain the unexplainable. Chief among the phenomena invoking apocalypse and days of judgment was the Aurora Borealis-eerie, silent flickerings of lurid light that rippled across the sky like an unhinged nocturnal rainbow. It was difficult at the time to find a description of an aurora that did not link it in some way with the war. That message was delivered in terms both scientific and apocalyptic by one of the most prominent Arctic explorers of his generation, Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes. In July 1860 Hayes sailed from Boston and wintered over in the Arctic, trapped in the ice pack. His safe return in October 1861 was cause for celebration-a rare bright spot in a winter dark with war. His ship, the SS United States, had survived an Arctic winter and returned intact, which was more than could be said for its namesake, the ship of state. At a lecture on his experiences Hayes noted, “Since we last met in this hall great changes have taken place. When I left the regions of eternal ice, I little dreamed that a powerful rebellion was desolating my country, and that civil war was raging among a people which I left prosperous and happy. . . . God willing, I trust yet to carry the flag of our great Republic, with not a single star erased from its glorious Union, to the extreme northern limits of the earth.”8 Hayes cast polar exploration as a form of patriotism, endurance as a northern value.

He spoke eloquently about the brilliant auroras he witnessed on his trip, emphasizing the apocalyptic overtones of this phenomenon, noting that the strange light “glowed again, as if the air were filled with charnel meteors, pulsating with wild inconstancy over some vast illimitable city of the dead.”9 Church and Hayes had become friends, each man developing an interest in the other’s profession.10 In 1864 as Church turned to paint his Aurora Borealis (Fig. 6), he seemed to have a similarly apocalyptic framework in mind. Under a dark Arctic sky, the explorer’s ship lies frozen in the packed ice at the base of a looming cliff. The heavens erupt in a cascade of eerie lights ranging from red to greenish-yellow. Church’s vision of the Arctic night renders this “illimitable” place with a powerful sense of melancholy and discord. As the ice grips Hayes’s SS United States, and by proxy the nation, the auroras snake across the sky like a grim warning from God, a bleak foreshadowing of doom. Artist and explorer present the Arctic as the antipode of Eden, the inverse of paradise, an unearthly landscape that functions as an inversion of the optimistic landscapes that made Church’s reputation.

In March 1865, as the end of the war approached, Yosemite glowed from the easel of Albert Bierstadt’s studio like Eden reborn. In Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (Fig. 7) a majestic sunset floods the valley floor with intense yellow light. The painting is unique among Bierstadt’s depictions of Yosemite in being entirely unpopulated-devoid of animals, birds, or humans. It suggested a new Eden after the flood, a place poised for the arrival of the ark to usher in a new future. Visually and psychologically Bierstadt’s painting is the antithesis of Church’s keening Arctic wasteland. Yosemite held out the promise of a place in which all Americans could slough off the trauma of war and sectarian strife, a place of renewal and healing.

Since its discovery by white settlers in the early 1850s, Yosemite’s geological features and verdant valley floor had been described as evidence of the beneficent hand of God in the wilderness. Following his first visit on July 11, 1860, the eloquent Boston preacher Thomas Starr King delivered a sermon to his congregation in San Francisco in which he proclaimed the holy qualities of Yosemite, whose mountains “were created as an overflow of God’s goodness,” feelings that “lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”11

Bierstadt had hoped to travel west in 1862, but the war delayed his plans. He finally made his way to Yosemite in the summer of 1863 after receiving authorization from the War Department for a military escort. He described his reaction to his first view of the Yosemite Valley in a letter to his friend John Hay, President Lincoln’s personal secretary, “We are now here in the garden of Eden I call it.”12 It was a prophetic and calculated statement of hope and redemption for war-torn America. A group of Californians advocated that the site be designated a park and sought federal acknowledgment of the area’s unique landforms and recreational potential.13 Their efforts were rewarded in June 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed legislation setting aside Yosemite as America’s first federally recognized park.14 In location and topography, this valley was deemed exactly what the nation needed while war raged-hallowed ground-and a return to Eden. In setting aside this place, Lincoln declared Yosemite a regenerative sanctuary for the entire country.15

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. Less than a week later John Wilkes Booth, unable to accept the defeat of the Confederacy, shot and killed the president.

When the National Academy of Design opened its spring exhibition, delayed in deference to Lincoln’s death, one of the paintings prominently displayed was one Sanford Gifford had completed in 1863, A Coming Storm (Fig. 8). What made this painting stand out was the wall label noting that it was owned by the Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother to the president’s assassin. Gifford’s painting became a touchstone for grieving New Yorkers. Melville’s poem about the painting interpreted it as emblematic of Edwin’s emotional state as well as that of the nation.16 The poignant connection between Gifford’s storm, Edwin Booth’s personal anguish, and the nation’s grief lent deeper significance to this work.

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.

   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.