Melville, Whitman and the Art of the Civil War
Art and the First Modern Total War
The twin summer exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Civil War and American Art and Photography and the American Civil War (both through the beginning of September), evoke different responses. The photographs, which largely consist of portraits staged before the soldiers went off to combat and sold to them with albums and purse frames, allow us to meet the men before they were to engage in they knew not what. Some have looks of bravado, others with expressions of discomfort, but all in their soldier regalia and all with a somewhat vacant look. One can’t help but feel immense empathy for these men, now long dead, many not even identified, solely from photographs more than 150 years old. The small size of the positives requires close inspection, which itself enhances the intimacy. But in the end, after seeing enough of them, the conclusion dawns that all these men are suppressing (some better than others) a not-so-secret terror. The very act of sitting for these portraits (many by Brady in Washington as the troops arrived) is a not so secret pact to cheat death. They were all doing something that probably never would have occurred to them before: they were preserving an image of themselves against the possibility (very high it would turn out) that they would shortly die. The purse frames that contain these photographs are all quite elegant, probably far more elegant than most of these men were used to. It showed what high importance they attached to this purchase. It also showed, perhaps, how in their own commercial interest Brady and the others were taking advantage of these men, who were about to die.
The photography exhibit had other interesting scenes. There is Gardner’s overhead view of the hooded and still hanging bodies at the execution of conspirators to Lincoln’s assassination. The overhead view gives the impression that the viewpoint is divine justice. There is another of a group of black Union soldiers digging the graves for a pile of corpses. And the famous picture of Lincoln visiting McClellan’s headquarters after the Union’s tactical victory at Antietam in October 1862 is represented. Lincoln was bitterly disappointed that McClellan had failed to rout the retreating rebel forces. The picture shows a towering Lincoln and a defiant McClellan looking directly up, perhaps spitefully, into his face. But these photographs, powerful as they are, seem merely “historic.” It is the unnatural portraits, perhaps because the mere act of sitting and paying for them was a nearly sacred act in the face of death, that remain with you after leaving the halls.
The exhibit of civil war art also shows photographs. They were mostly of the aftermath of battles and included Timothy O’Sullivan’s famous “Harvest of Death” from Gettysburg’s field of bodies. The piles of mangled corpses undoubtedly shocked, horrified but also compelled their audiences at showings in the North. Although we have seen so many more of such records of carnage, many of these very first war photographs remain iconic, even if we now suspect that some of the grisly scenes, like Alexander Gardner’s “The Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” were arranged. But in some ways more evocative is Gerorge Bernard’s photograph of a man sitting amidst the rubble of Charleston, South Carolina lost in thought or remorse. Part of the dreamlike quality of the scene is the result of the deep focus of the shot (which you can better see by clicking on the photograph to the right above).
The paintings (perhaps five dozen) have less emotional immediacy than the photographs, which is to be expected. First, the act of painting requires an intellectual response to be translated into an aesthetic (and therefore artificial) construction. Second, the artists were often influenced by commercial considerations. Many of the paintings were intended for private purchase, and the sensibilities of potential purchasers did not run in the direction of ferocity. But third, there simply wasn’t a visual vocabulary, at least in America, for dealing with the irrational fury, universal grief, and fear for the future that this first modern total war unleashed. European artists did not have sufficient vocabulary either, but they had not been steeped in the transcendental optimism and near religious belief in America as the promised land that American painters universally subscribed to. The portraits of Washington by Peale and Gilbert are nothing if not hagiographic. And the only developed landscape school was the Hudson River School, which exalted in grand vistas of pristine, welcoming forests with blazing light.
The exhibition shows a number of Winslow Homer paintings, beginning with his first oils. They are journalistic. (His engravings illustrated Harper‘s Weekly for many years before he took up oils.) Unfortunately, his technique and sense of composition had not caught up with his concepts. And as journalism, paintings, and even engravings, could not compare with photography, even given that photography was still too primitive to capture live action or movement. There are several rather small paintings by Conrad Wise Chapman, a painter in the Confederate army who was commissioned by General Beauregard to paint views of fortifications and other propaganda. The real revelation, however, comes in the landscapes. Skies are no longer beatific. Storms impend everywhere. And Homer Dodge Martin’s The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York, (1862) gives silent testament to how even the land itself was ravished to give up its soul to continue the war.
The best of the new landscapes, which mirror the mental uncertainty of impending doom, is A Coming Storm by Sanford Robinson Gifford. Gifford was a Hudson River School painter, perhaps the best of them. His attraction to bright overhead light to suggest peace and tranquillity was so pronounced that he was a leader in the so-called Luminism off-shoot of that school. He was studying abroad when war whoops began, and he returned to help defend his country. He joined New York’s famous Seventh Regiment and saw duty each summer from 1861 to 1863 defending Washington, D.C. and Baltimore as well as helping to quell th draft riots in New York City in 1863.
A Coming Storm shows how conventions can be subverted to portray an artist’s (or the viewer’s) state of mind. This is particularly true of Hudson River School painters who essentially identified their work with New England transcendentalism. In this case, the storm, while not yet seen, can be sensed in the right, and the gathering clouds cast shadows on the entire scene, which otherwise (as anyone who knew Gifford’s work would have known) would have radiated Nature’s beneficence. Enough light remains to see how pristine and innocent the land yet remains, but the growing darkness threatens a great disturbance. The metaphor is perhaps too obvious. Gathering storm imagery was extensively used by writers of the time. Is the image too patent or perhaps too coy?
Contemporaries were greatly moved by the image. It was first purchased by Edwin Booth, the acclaimed actor and brother of Lincoln’s assassin. And when Herman Melville saw the painting he was so affected that he composed a poem, which he included in his book of ruminations on the war.
The Coming Storm
from Battle-Pieces and Aspects of The War
(New York: Harper & Brothers: 1866), p. 143
by Herman Melville
A Picture by S.R. Gifford, and owned by E.B.
Included in the N.A. Exhibition, April, 1865.
All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim—
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
Fixed him and fascinated here.
A demon-cloud like the mountain one
Burst on a spirit as mild
As this urned lake, the home of shades.
But Shakspeare’s pensive child
Never the lines had lightly scanned,
Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;
The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware,
Such hearts can antedate.
No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakspeare’s core;
That which we seek and shun is there—
Man’s final lore.
Melville’s poetry itself lacks the immediacy of photographs. But Melville expressly disclaimed any such in his introduction to the book: “I seem, in most of these verses, to have but placed a harp in a window and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played upon the strings.” (p [v].) And in this case he is meditating on another work, with that artist’s own interposition between the result and the event. In fact the poem is about the work, not its subject. And it ends with a tribute to the power of Shakespeare’s character Hamlet, himself buffeted by conflicting and wrenching emotions.
Another poem from the same collection also has representation in the Met exhibition, although there is no evidence that Melville ever saw the work. They simply draw on the same conceit. Melville directly relates the meteor to John Brown, whose raid and swift execution ignited the country. This poem, written originally in 1859, was made a preface to a later printing of the collection the same year:
by Herman Melville
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the the war.
The painting from the exhibition that calls to mind this poem is Frederick Edwin Church’s enormous canvas, Meteor.
Church, another Hudson River School painter, did not have to draw attention to the metaphor. Everyone knew that the meteor seen on November 15, 1859 was a portent of what was to come after John Brown’s execution, a few days later.
Church’s painting, however, did not portray that meteor, but rather the meteor procession that took place on July 20, 1860. And that phenomenon was mythologized by Walt Whitman.
Year of Meteors
from Drum-Taps (New-York: 1965), pp. 52-53
by Walt Whitman
YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective some of your deeds and signs,
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad,
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia,
(I was at hand, silent I stood with teeth shut close, I watch’d,
I stood very near you old man when cool and indifferent, but trembling
with age and your unheal’d wounds you mounted the scaffold;)
I would sing in my copious song your census returns of the States,
The tables of population and products, I would sing of your ships and their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan arriving, some fill’d with
immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold,
Songs thereof would I sing, to all that hitherward comes would welcome give,
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, young prince of England!
(Remember you surging Manhattan’s crowds as you pass’d with your cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;)
Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,
Her moving swiftly surrounded by myriads of small craft I forget not to sing;
Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,
Nor 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;)
Of such, and fitful as they, I sing–with gleams from them would gleam and patch these chants,
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good–year of forebodings!
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange–lo! even here one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?
Words, like visual reflections on the country’s upheaval, were insufficient. And Whitman realized that even an intense herald as he saw himself was only something “transient and strange” in the maelstrom.