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Three Reasons Why American Artists Rarely Painted The Civil War

The first two major American military conflicts produced some of the most important art of the 18th and 19th centuries. John Trumbull’s portraits of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and Alexander Hamilton were later immortalized on the back of U.S. currency, and Thomas Birch documented the major navel battles of the War of 1812.

But there’s a void in cultural output when it comes to the Civil War. Princeton University art historian John Wilmerding argues there are three reasons: a high point of American literature, the rise of photography, and the American landscape as the definition of national identity.

“The antebellum, and then the war period itself, produces some of our greatest literature in the history of the country – what is now known as the American Renaissance,” Wilmerding says. “Harriet Beecher Stowe, [Walt] Whitman, and especially [Herman] Melville. It was in the great production of their master works of writing that you have an ‘artist’ in the larger sense looking for means of anticipation, and then response.”

Wilmerding delivered his remarks at a luncheon address during the University of Oklahoma’s 2014 “Teach-Inon the Civil War.”

The rapid technological innovation as photography developed led artists and academics to believe “painting was dead,” because it could never capture the realism and immediacy painters aspired to for centuries. But the technological limitations of early daguerreotypes and “glass plate” positive-negative techniques meant photographers were also limited in subject matter.

“Because of exposure time they couldn’t depict motion, so again we are looking at images of dead soldiers,” Wilmerding said as he described Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter.” “It is meant to have all the directness and obviously the gravity, the immediacy of the horror itself.”

Finally, there’s the fact that westward expansion and Manifest Destiny - ideas that defined the first half of the 19th century – could most easily expressed through landscape painting.

“With the discovery of gold in 1849, it wasn’t just the eastern half of the country, it was the country envisioned set in motion by the idea of America being something more than coastal, a continental idea, a territorial idea,” Wilmerding says. “The idea of looking west. The setting sun becomes one of the great images of American landscape.”

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JOHN WILMERDING: I want to talk to you about, as President Boren has said, the visual response of artists to this critical period in American history. And I'm gonna concentrate, say 1855-1865 because there's a paradox here. American artists didn't really illustrate the Civil War. I think, certainly in American history, it's the first time during the course of major conflicts; the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 for example. Wr have major examples of artists who depicted battle scenes, who depicted the great heroes. With a few exceptions, that simply didn't exist during the Civil War. So there's a real question here. First of all, try and answer why. And secondly, how did they respond? How did they express the deep anguish, the turmoil, the kinds of issues we heard about so eloquently this morning. 

So let me start, and if we can lower the lights that would probably help. I just made the point that in the Revolutionary War period, we produced really a major artist in John Trumbull. A Patriot who studied in England and really became sort of the official artist of the Revolutionary War. And I just give you an example there on the left of General Mercer's death, the Battle of Princeton. One of a whole series and of course it is Trumbull who also depicted the Declaration of the group coming together to sign the Declaration of Independence. There are others that depict, as I said, the major names, the faces, and some of the key events of the period. 

On the right hand is a battle scene on Lake Erie that Thomas Birch painted in the 18-well, contemporary and shortly after in the 10's and the 20's. A series depicting the major naval battles in the War of 1812. And as I said the curious thing is, we have almost no equivalent in the American Civil War. Yes, we could cite Winslow Homer, the Boston artist comes to New York, he's hired by Harper's magazine as a kind of staff illustrator, is said to the front from New York to depict mostly scenes and images behind the battles lines. I'll just show you one of the more important examples. The rebel sharp shooter up there in a tree, which was also a little oil painting, one of his first actually in the 1860's. And so Harper is a kind of journalist recorder, but by and large, and even in this case, they're not scenes of outright action itself. There's something quite startling of course capturing this relatively new form of terror, namely the sharp shooter in a tree, taking beat on a partly seen or unseen enemy. And so literally, and metaphorically, the action is outside the screen of the frame of reference here. 

At the end of the war in 1866, Homer painted this great picture on the right known as "Prisoners from the Front" now in the Metropolitan Museum. But it too is not a scene of action, it's not the moment itself. It is after the war, when the bedraggled Confederate soldiers are lined up on the left hand side, facing the young northern Union officer on the right. And in a sense we begin to feel that the meaning in this picture is not in what's depicted but what's not. The drained, empty, barren, scorched landscape surrounding them. The fact that the painting is largely monochromatic. That also suggests something about, as I say the palate suggesting something about the drama of life and death that is implied here. The effort at reconciliation such as it is or isn't. But as I say this is after the war itself. There are a few other pictures one could cite I'm not going to show you. Albert Bierstadt did a little skirmish in the wood. It's not a big picture, not a major one. I'm just thinking Southern artists, an artist named John Ross Key painted a major picture called "The Bombardment of Fort Sumter". And so one could hold that up perhaps as a key American picture of the conflict. 

Conrad Wise Chapman recently rediscovered another Southern painter who depicted largely army tents and various scenes. But largely as I say, behind the battle lines themselves. So this brings us back then to my opening, why? And the why not, the other part of that question. Well I think there may be three reasons at least I can think of. The first interestingly I just throw this out for us to think about is that this was a period in which the cultural response to this growing period of turmoil and then outright conflict, and by that I mean the late 1850s and then the 1860s itself was perhaps most expressed in our literature of the period. There are moments in history and American history when this is the case. The 1960s I think is quite interesting to me, in that black expression, the African American outride, outrage at race relations and so forth, was largely expressed through literature. There's very little significant African-American painting or sculpture in that period because the memoir it seems to me, a lesser extent poetry, but the memoir and the autobiography became the major outlet for that aspect of public expression. 

I want to argue that this same period that, let us say the period of the Civil War, the antebellum and then the war period itself, also produces some of our greatest literature in the history of the country. What is now known as the American Renaissance. But in particular, the key figure is, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and then later Whitman, and especially Melville. To a lesser extent much more metaphorically Henry David Thoreau in Boston. It was in the great production of their master works of writing that you have a quote "artist" in the larger sense looking for means of response, of anticipation, and then response. 

So I would say that literature is perhaps one answer. The second, perhaps more crucial is photography. And I think we forget this. Photography only recently developed, that is to say, the procedures literally only discovered and formulated in the late 1830s, introduced to this country the daguerreotype in particular. And then the next important development, the so-called "glass plate" positive-negative techniques. Which still required large moments of holding the lens open so they couldn't photograph motion. But in the case of the US, the Civil War provided the first opportunity for photographers to photograph imagery of the battlefield. As I say, because of exposure time they couldn't depict motion, so again we are looking at images of dead soldiers. Images that in some cases are literally composed or recomposed. That is, say, in the Timothy O. Sullivan photograph on the right, home of the quote "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter". We now know that that body had been photographed outside the rocky outcroppings, and then brought in and went and lodged in the rocks here in the lower foreground. So that the photographer is actually thinking like a painter composing. It is meant to have all the directness and obviously the gravity, the immediacy of the horror itself. 

And in a way I think, just to argue, that photography took over that artistic role and of course initially the first decade or so after its development, particularly in Europe there were, among artists and the academies, the belief that a quote "painting was dead". And that photography had taken on a level of realism that painter's had been aspiring to for generations. So photography it seems to me plays a major role in answering that question. And the body of work produced by O'Sullivan, and there on the left Alexander Gardner. Some of these attributions have shifted. Both were assistants and had been working with the great Matthew Brady. Brady largely worked behind the scenes. Produced an extraordinary body of work. If any of you saw the major exhibition last year, both the paintings at the Metropolitan but there was also, The Met put on a photography show of photography during the Civil War showing many of this great series of pictures. There was also startling imagery, we heard this morning about amputation. The medical photographs are absolutely riveting from this period. 

So photography would be the second answer to the question. And the third is, it seems to me, American landscape. By the 1820's, 1830's landscape really became the new imagery in defining national identity. In literature and in painting. In literature with the writing certainly of Ralph Waldo Emerson, nature being the most familiar one. And then of his student, his pupil and later great friend, Henry David Thoreau. Articulate nature as the great American experience. The country was beginning to be opened up, population was moving to the middle of the country, and then with the discovery of course of gold in 1849, it wasn't just the Eastern half of the country, it was the country envisioned set in motion by Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition to follow. Set in motion then the idea of America being something more than coastal, being a continental idea. A territorial idea. An idea that could be shown primarily in landscape. 

And so nature, by the second quarter of the 19th century, and this is really the heart of the argument it seems to me, by the second quarter of the 19th century nature is the embodiment of national identity. Nature becomes, Perry Miller said, we are nature's nation. The sense of not only identity but of national history is expressed, to put in the phrase, to me is expressed in the horizon. The idea of looking west, to the idea of looking to the setting sun. Twilight hours, the setting sun, becomes one of the great images of American landscape beginning in the second quarter and carrying through our period. 

So, I want to talk, in effect paradoxically, about artists as I say, who don't depict literally the Civil War, or the tensions leading up to it. But I want to try, this is a subtle argument because I'm really talking about what's not there. But if you accept the premise that landscape, as I say, is for all intents and purposes, doing this really half century from 1825-1875, is landscape. We need now to look closely at landscape painting in this very precise focused period. And I want to make an argument that there you will see a profound and deep insight into the state of the nation as it went through this crisis. 

I'm going to concentrate briefly on three artists. Not all exact contemporaries. The first is an artist I've worked on for years, Fitz Henry Lane. Born in Gloucester, basically a New England artist largely centered in Massachusetts, Boston and the coast of Maine. Born in 1804, comes into his maturity in the 1820s and 30s, an active painter in the 40s and 50s. So he dies actually in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. And there's something very poignant about his final years coinciding with the great crisis of warfare itself. I'll come to that, you'll see, in a moment. 

But I begin with some of his most beautiful pictures painted in the late 1840s and particularly early 1850s. He develops a style we now call "Luminism", a term obviously referring to the emphasis on light. And it's one of the most beautiful aspects I think about Lane's achievement is that he could express, yes, details of the landscape. But as the career moves on, there is less and less emphasis for example on the foreground. On the literal ground itself. We are increasingly drawn, for example here these are two views of Gloucester. First on the shore; this is about 1850 with some sense of naval act, marine activity there in the background. Telling us something about maritime economy. The growth of trade along the New England coast, et cetera, et cetera. But in this painting of about 1852-53 on the right, of it's believed to be Gloucester Harbor, we know that from the little island on the right, but largely speaking you can't tell where you are. You're looking at open light. Lane has begun to draw your attention to the middle ground and to the distance. To, what I'd love to call the poetry of light itself. Moving painting, as it were, from the pros of nature to the poetry of nature. The sense of economy, of distillation, of implication.

So if Emerson had taught us that God's presence was imminent in nature, Lane as his contemporary, is suggesting in the open radiant sky. The literal depiction of broads open sunlight at midday and mid-moment, mid-morning. That this is sort of America at a moment of apogee. This great period before the Civil War. That sense of optimism, for a brief time, before it was challenged by regional conflict. Challenged by technology, the railroads, etc. The belief that American civilization did have God's ordination in it. 

So the open skies, the radiant sunlight, the stillness of water. Lane is a great economist and composition, this beautiful sense of the alignment it vessels across the canvas itself. Horizontals and verticals. The play of radiating sunlight there. The fact that cloud have disappeared. He learned to paint with just thin glazes, so that literally the canvas is I say suggests a kind of transparency into another world. And so God's presence is not only here, but in the world beyond. 

This was the view we had of ourselves as we expanded west. As we triumphed economically. We began to have, of course, a hemispheric sense of our ordained empire, for good or bad. And so Lane begins to capture that in these beautiful optimistic pictures, as I say, of the mid-1850s. 

And that continues for the next few years. What is interesting of course is we get into the period of the battle of the border warfare between Kansas-Nebraska. The no-nothing party in Washington. By the mid-1850s, regional conflict has become even more and more obvious. More and more tense as the country begins to reach the threshold of falling apart. For the time being, Lane's pictures continue this sense of radiance, this fascination for example with the twilight hour. The idea of this moment of golden light as the sun is setting. This is a kind of painting that suggests to us, when the day ends, it's been one of perfection. And the implication of this kind of imagery is that the day to follow will be just as nice. That nature goes through a cycle of constant renewal. The course of empire goes from youth to old age, but then returns to youth again. 

And so, landscape paintings were painting blasted broken tree trunks, but they were painting them next to fresh young greenery. This sense again of the symbolism of nature is infinite cycle suggests in terms of light, of color, of stillness. These are compositions near perfection in terms of stability, self-confidence, whatever words you want to use. 

But, what is so interesting and here it comes to the crux of my argument, that by 1860, then end of the 60s, we're now literally on the threshold of tearing ourselves apart. Lane faces this sense of crisis in a couple of ways. And they're kind of fascinating because here you see, for the first time, a painting of a thunderstorm. And it's not ac-what's interesting is it's not a thunderstorm itself, this painting on the right, 1860. It's called, "Coming Storm Off Owls Head" on the mid-Maine coast of Penobscot Bay. And Lane has taken the devices of thunderstorm. That is say threatening noise, threatening violence, imminent squall. There is a squall along the horizon there that's rushing forward. And we see the sailors up in the yardarms rushing to take the sails in before the squall line the hurricane line comes across the foreground. 

So Lane has given us a moment before the breaking of the storm, and painted it with this stability as you see, of two vessels against a long horizon line. Again a very simplified composition, not one of dynamism or turmoil itself, but rather one that is still and precise and orderly. And yet contains, as I say, this sense of imminent noise and visual violence. A kind of perversity, and inverse of the sense of action itself. 

So, in terms of if there is a subject matter, see there it is. Thank you very much. If there is a subject matter in Civil War landscape painting, it's 3 things. Not just for the first time, but for the first time in a major way, the shipwreck in the rain painting becomes an obsessive subject. I'll show you one by Lane in just a moment. The shipwreck, think about it in some ways, is now seen as a metaphor for the wreckage or the imminent wreckage of the ship of state. The shipwreck secondly, the thunderstorm. Up to now largely American painters, as I say like Lane himself, had been defined 10 years before, had painted just radiant sunlight. Sunlight I would like to say metaphorically as well as literally, America at high noon. But now they begin to paint the sunset as not something fulfilling day’s conclusion, but as sense of violence. The flairs of fire, and there's all of that imagery running through Thoreau's journals and notebooks. The idea of the not only inner fire but the fires of nature. And then I'm reminded of course of Lincoln's great phrase, "the fiery trial through which we are going". 

So, in some ways I want to argue, and I'll show you now images of this. The idea of the flairs. The lurid, intense sunset or twilight pictures becomes a second major subject after the shipwreck. 

So you have the thunderstorm, the twilight, or sunset pictures, and shipwreck. So that's as close as you get, as it were, to a subject matter of conflict. And of course these are not painted at the moment of Gettysburg or Manassas or any particular, but they do as I say, have this sense of explosive tension, or imminent violence painted visually. 

And so the lesson here is that we're beginning as artists to see how landscape adapted to the needs, changing needs, as we move from one moment into another. 

Couple of other late paintings, early 60s by Lane. Appropriately he chose a beach that happened to be named, and this is along the Gloucester shoreline, Coffin's Beach. I don't think it's any accident that it was named Coffin's Beach, obviously cause at low tide these dark, rocky outcroppings suggested a kind of cemetery. And so Lane seizes on that image and, if you'll gain compare this with what we've just looked at, there's a kind of drained quality. Yes, you've still got that lovely sort of yellow on the horizon of sun setting. But it's as if he's wanting to paint emptiness. Paint a kind of drained vacuum. There's something haunting about this picture. Or let me use the adjective elegiac. The mood has shifted. "Twilight on Penobscot Bay", "Lumber Schooners at Twilight on Penobscot Bay" here on the right hand screen. The same thing, the sunset is in the far distance there in the left hand corner, left hand edge. And it's as if light is literally being drained. It seems to me the whole sensibility has changed, from just the two or three images I showed you a moment ago. 

This was Lane's response to this now this deep here. Many of his family members, he himself was had some kind of polio we believe and couldn't serve. But members of his family, like many others in the North, went south to fight. So Lane was now well aware of family loss. Of what was happening to the nation itself. And I think this was in part his response. 

And so the last pictures he painted in 1863, '64. His last painting year before his death in '65. Isn't it interesting that there's almost an obsession with low tide? With not only light as it were at the end of a day being drained from nature. But now the water is receding. That you have him fascinated with these blacks of the exposed rocks at low tide. There's still this exquisite sense of light that we associated with this painting style. But I'm suggesting in his pictorial vocabulary, this image of nothing happening. Of the tide being out, hasn't yet turned. That there's something as I say deeply poetic, deeply mournful in which the landscape is, as I say, is turned into a kind of visual cemetery. 

This brings me to Lane’s last pictures. Now as I say he dies in 1865. The last series I think quite significantly that he undertook. First of all, you can't tell from images on a screen, these are very small little pictures. Perhaps 12x15 inches wide. As opposed to the larger landscapes that are double or triple that size. 

I find it fascinating that Lane concentrates now on a small scale. The intimate scale. I want to say, the introspective scale. Looking inward. Something deeply, as I say, personal. The horizon line blurred and obscured in a haze of light. As if this is not just an external record, but an internal landscape. You have the pink light, this is a little cove again off of Gloucester called "Brace's Rock". Lane went out there and, for the first time, for an artist who had painted shipping scenery, fishing negotiations, shipbuilding, all of the productive activity of the economy of the sea which had dominated his work in the 1850s. 

Say coastal trade, for example. Now he brings us to the shipwreck or the abandoned vessel. They're very small, the little schooners have been beached, have been left. it's interesting there's no human presence. Human presence may be implied in that the sails have been taken down, has this vessel been abandoned? Or is it washed ashore? We don't quite know. But I do think it's significant that, and it was a series of several 3,4, maybe at the most half dozen, which he experimented with various points of view here. But how different this light is from the earlier images I showed you at the outset. Full of radiant light. Now as I say there's this very cool sense of the pink light, as it's about to disappear into darkness. And the imagery now is of this poignant little vessel. And particularly the one on the right, where you actually see, you actually see the shell of the vessel itself like a skeleton. I don't think that's any accident. 

Now the danger we art historians have of course, my students accuse me of it all the time, is how to read out of the painting what we think is there as opposed to reading into it what we wanted to be there. So I have to be very careful in making this suggestiveness, but it seems to me the visual evidence accumulates to give us that sensibility. Now, the other aspect of course I say, Lane himself, was probably having either some kinds of heart trouble, heart stroke, or whatever, in his last year of life as he became increasingly infirm. It's equally possible to argue these little pictures as his own sensibility about mortality. His own coming death. It's not that he knew the moment that it would be, that it would be the following year, but it seems to me something of the poignancy of these pictures, the meditative aspect, the sense of disintegration, is both, it seems to me, something that has to do with the larger national situation, as well as something deeply personal, as I say, in his own, his own biography. 

The second artist, Martin Johnson Heade, often compared to Lane, is actually born, the good generation, younger, 1819. So he doesn't come to his maturity until the Civil War period, the 18-literally the late 1850s. But he also interestingly begins his earliest work such as you see there, the North shore of Boston. Is largely an open pastoral field benign landscape, sometimes filled with hunters out in the foreground. And then Lane, I'm sorry Heade then interestingly chooses for his principle subject matter over the next, well, a good 25 years, but certainly through the next crucial ten year period, he chooses the marsh scape. The marshlands of the North shore. Primarily Newburyport, and the Newburyport area. Then later he painted the New Jersey marshes and finally, after the War, goes to Florida. 

I find again, I just want to argue, throw this out for you to think about. I find it fascinating that he chooses the marsh as his principle landscape. Because, and I want to argue, because the marsh in a sense by definition is an unstable landscape. It's neither solid nor liquid, but both. Moreover it changes every 6 hours with the tide. These were saltwater marshes in which, when the tide was out, these little rivulets would be practically drained. Then they would come in, he'd go out there with carts you know, trying to get a view before the tide came in, and the landscape became unstable. I just wonder whether, intuitively, whether consciously or not, whether intuitively he chose this landscape to explore because somehow it was related to, or could express, the larger instability of the national condition. I don't know, we don't have letters to that effect. But the fact is that he made it his subject matter. For dozens and dozens of paintings suggest to me, that that exploration of a particular typology of landscape, as opposed for example, to Bierstadt wanting to paint the Rocky Mountains as the great symbol of solid, awesome grandeur. 

The marsh, as I say in its softness, in its changeability, was serving a different kind of need as we move into this period of turmoil. Moreover, and I've organized this almost in an artificial way, as the series proceeds and moves on into the 60s, notice how we have he beginning to play with the idea, of Lane's idea, of the coming storm. And it's quite possible that Heade knew that thunderstorm painting by Lane, because it will be Heade who now makes the thunderstorm. Between 1859 and 1865, paints a remarkable and dramatic series of thunderstorms, primarily in the New England and the Newburyport landscape. One of the more dramatic here on the right, where we have now this artist like Lane and those last pictures using black as a new expressive color. This drama of light and dark, where you have as you see here reflections. There's something brooding about these pictures. First off, they're about the harvesting of hay, but then they move as I say into some deeper sensibility. You still have as you see a touch of blue sky in this one on the right. But then they culminate and here are two examples from 1859, 1860. I don't find these thunderstorm pictures accidental. I think Heade discovered that the thunderstorm now was the perfect visual metaphor for the national conflict. And they're among the most remarkable and powerful pictures painted in America, as I say, in this critical period. 

Figures doing nothing, water breaking on the shore, but look at the way the waves break there on the left. Almost frozen, they're a technical tour de force in the way you have the frozen water there. Or as I say, the black circle literally occupying the whole center of this composition on the right. And one in Amon Carter Museum on the right hand screen there. "Approaching Storm" he gave them various titles. But the waves on that picture in the left to me is that they almost look like frozen waves. Aside from the storm itself sweeping across these great canvases, there's this exploration as I say, into world of blackness and natural violence became the metaphors by which they could really explore and respond to what was going on. 

A related aspect I've always suggested in Lane's work. These are pictures of 1862, "Spouting Rock Near Newport" on the right. And on the left, a painting of Lake George. And they're beautiful in many ways. And the slides barely give it a hint of this, but I just want to suggest that the way they're painted almost suggest a kind of dryness. Particularly that beach in the Lake George picture on the left. When you see it firsthand, it almost looks like a moonscape, even though there's a little figure in a rowboat there, you seem to be entering into some kind of landscape of a vacuum, of something severe. And so this is another hint, as I say, of a way of finding in the natural world, a particular language that could visually express their response. Lane bringing together the thunderstorm there with the wrecked ship offshore occupying center stage and our attention. And as I say to me, a kind of metaphor kind of imagery of the wrecked ship of state. 

And finally, in one of the most beautiful you'd say on the surface this painting of haystacks at sunrise on the right hand screen. I call your attention to the little detail of a figure, an old figure it turns out, in a red shirt in the lower right foreground, seated in a boat, with a young boy. And the red-shirted old man, presumably a grandfather, has got a fishing line. On the face of it has all of that tranquility, and you'd say this is a contradiction in turns. It's almost a kind of hallucinogenic picture in its stillness, in its mystery of moisture and atmosphere. But what is haunting to me is the fact that the figures that are in this picture are the extremes of age. The old man and youth. So in 1863, here is Heade already in a sense painting who is not only there but more importantly who is missing. The brother, the father, the soldier who is lying on O'Sullivan and Gardner's battlefields. 

So these are some of the subtle ways these artists were addressing landscape. And I conclude with just a few images now, of perhaps the most powerful figure of this generation, Frederic Edwin Church. Younger still, 1826. Studied with the great master, the founder of the Hudson River school Thomas Cole. Comes from an ardent union family. His family very conscious of the outbreak of war and as it were of saving the Union, saving the nature, saving American nature and nation. On the left is, in fact, a painting by Lane. One of Lane's early sunset pictures, probably the first, "Twilight on the Kanabec" which gave Church the idea of working with these what were then new pigments. The reds and intense yellows, oranges, the so-called cadmium colors that only very recently been developed as individual pigments available in tubes to artists. Who could now paint the idea of sunset and twilight. So you have very interesting tech moment in the technology of painting that comes together with, as it were, a wish for imagery. And Church seizes he saw Lane's painting there on the left on exhibition in New York in 1849. The next year, the next summer, Church himself decides to go to the main coast and begin painting his sunset and twilight pictures. "Sunset Off Grand Manan" on the right hand screen, and as I say, as early pictures in the sequence, Church too begins, anchors himself, with these images of radiant sunlight. They don't feel threatened yet. You don't feel that imminence of violence. 

And Church begins to exploit this remarkable vocabulary, as you can see, of red pigments to paint, on the one hand, "Dawn off Mountainous Earth" there on the left. Mount Katahdin, great inland peak in central northern Maine here on the right. And you could argue that dawn is of course day's promise. But in turning to sunset on Mount Katahdin, he's interested in that image I suggested a moment ago, of the idea of looking westward. That in the westward landscape would be endless promise. Church in this painting of Mount Katahdin really gives us two pictures. On the one hand the foreground, there a paddle there in the water. There's a boy you can't make out under a tree, looking as it were into the future. And then in the background, of the upper 2/3rds of the canvas, this remarkable, this wonderful radiant landscape that as I say captures all of this gray period of optimism before a crisis occurs. 

By 1856, something new is coming into these pictures. And it's very subtle in that painting on the left, that Church simply titled, "Sunset". Some months in Munson Williams Proctor in Utica. And I just call attention to a couple of elements. All those beautiful pinks and yellows and soft colors that hinted at so to speak of days fulfillment. Now Church pushes that yellow to an almost acidic quality. In the foreground across the rocks and the water surface, the pinks have moved to lavenders and purples. Just the shift in the pallet alone seems to me suggests a very different mood in which there's almost a tension introduced into this picture. A tension again that is expressed only through color itself. 

The whole series culminates into one of the master works of American art, at the critical moment, 1860. And it's called, "Twilight In the Wilderness". It's in the Cleveland Museum. And it is not so much, to use the art historian, David Huntington referred to the earlier pictures as America at a moment of Genesis, of promise, and in the making. This is America at a moment of apocalypse. It's not quite Lincoln's fiery trial, but it is now at the threshold of the literal outbreak of war. An awareness of crisis about to explode. A meteorologist will tell us that's a sky, what, 20-30,000 feet up what meteorologists now call a front coming through. We sense in that sky not just an extraordinary cloud configuration, which it is. And a cloudy sunset that Church had seen in Bar Harbor a few years before and sketched. But now turns into a great drama that's neither interestingly neither coastal nor inland Maine, but a combination of what he'd seen on the shore and what he saw, wanted to suggest is continental America. America as a whole. On the right you have these great dying tree trunks, almost gesturing like human beings at the horror, at the imminence of this great drama. 

It is composed like a piece of theater. A stage on which nature and the sunset is going to be the great protagonist. You can't make out but I must point out, and the left of it, isolated against the hot reds of those tinged clouds, is an eagle sitting in the branches of the tree. Church intentionally paints this in other words, as a national picture. This is about the nation at the beginning of crisis. It is also of course an American. So which you also can't make out in the foreground on this blasted tree trunk in the immediate foreground painted as Church has painted the configuration of the blasted stub. And the eye reads it as a figure praying before a cross. This also has, in other words, a religious connotation to it. The Biblical challenge to nature is also underway. It's not just the outbreak of the Civil War, it is the publication of Darwin's, "Origin of Species" the year before which Church had read. The Origin of Species of course in an instant challenged up, overturning the idea of nature as God's creation. Of God's imminence in nature. That nature was haphazard, nature was accidental in its changes and so forth. This is a picture of enormous complexity, subtlety and expressiveness that as I say, pushes the buttons not only of nationality, of contemporary history, but also the very challenge to the idea of the biblical underpinnings at least of American nature. 

So it is a turning point picture, in which as I say the elements of the landscape have embodies all of these intellectual, emotional, and social ideas. And if you doubt me, 1860 later that year, Church paints The Icebergs. And originally it was called The Icebergs now in the Dallas Museum. And in the foreground, the imagery of course of the broken cross there in the foreground. The top of the spar of some abandoned vessel. Now this does have to do of course with Northern explorations by the English and the Americans to the Arctic regions. 

But later that year Church was commissioned to do a chromolithograph of that painting. And the chromolithograph he intentionally titled, "The North". He Unionizes the picture. There is the threat and the eminence of death in the wilderness, but it is also of course the idea of the Arctic as a great pure Geology. It is, as I say, Church conscious of the Northern landscape as being an American landscape.

And then in a kind of sort of nonsensical way, but again in terms of the Union cause, turned his sunsets that we have just seen, "Twilight in the Wilderness" paints again as propaganda so to speak. A picture called, "Our Banner in the Sky". And he intentionally did it as a chromolithograph. There is an oil painting. A lithograph which could be reproduced and circulated, and as you see it's the tattered flag against the twilight sky.

So Church in, as I say, if you doubted me, in "Twilight of the Wilderness" Church is thinking of it as our namely, the Union banner, in the sky under assault. There are other finally remarkable pictures of the mid 1860s that I think again are very telling. For example on the left, "A Storm at Mount Desert" where we are looking at an afternoon sky almost obscured, I want to say, like some kind of hurricane or some kind of traumatic event where the sun is about to be obscured. Almost a kind of eclipse. And in the foreground, as opposed to those beautiful pictures of the like Mount Katahdin, of a just a few years before, now we have the water bashing the rocks. This has also become a kind of Darwinian battle. In which water and rock are physically fighting one another. 

In other words, the tranquil landscape of the 1850s is now the engaged battlefield of the titanic elemental forces of water and rock of the 1860s. Also 1863 he painted it before, starts going to South America, kind of hemispheric vision of America. It begins but now he paints in the northern Andes the erupting volcano of Cotopaxi. And you barely get a hint of it, the actual picture is even more dramatic in the color contrasts in which you have this sense of liquid fire. The sun itself now in battle with the Earth. The explosion of black smoke, of trying to obscure the background of the picture. 

This is Church's Gettysburg. This is Church's battlefield. So he was very much attuned, as I say, to what was going on. And finally, just to bring this to conclusion, to as I say hope drive home that Church of all of these artists, is the most eloquent and was recognized at the time. What does he do in 1866? He paints these two pictures you might say of acts of Thanksgiving. The one on the left, "Rainy Season in the Tropics" now in San Francisco, is of course this beautiful double rainbow that arches across the chasm, and as it were, metaphorically unites North and South. An act of Thanksgiving. On the right is the aurora borealis. Again a belief that God has returned to the landscape, this heroic expedition of northern lights, small vessel there in the foreground. So it seems to me when you put these sequences together we have here, as concrete a response, an emotional range, from tranquility and optimism through terror and horror, to the conclusion of the war years. 

And so, as I say, it's a battlefield of an entirely different time. Something entirely original to this period, both in American art and I think you can't find any equivalent in European art. Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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