The Civil War at the Met

Frederick Edwin Church, "Our Banner in the Sky", 1861
Frederick Edwin Church, “Our Banner in the Sky”, 1861

That heading may sound like internecine struggles amongst curators, administrators and philanthropists, but it really refers to two excellent exhibitions we saw at the Met Museum yesterday, The Civil War and American Art and Photography and the American Civil War.

The painting show (T.C.W.A.A.A.) includes some battlefield depictions but really examines the war’s impact on art from several directions, including genre paintings of slavery life, and landscapes seemingly unrelated to the conflict but rich with metaphorical foreboding. The four anchor artists are Frederick Church, Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, and Sanford Gifford, although others are represented. A touring show organized by the Smithsonian, the exhibition contains 75 works, and is augmented by a show of prints by Homer, Thomas Nast and others from the collection of the Met.


Also on view is the definitively comprehensive Photography and the American Civil War, which contains over 200 photographs from the collection of the Met. I went in expecting to see mostly gory depictions of the battlefield dead by Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and others, and though such images are represented, this broad ranging exhibition also contains tons of studio portraits, cartes-de-visite, stereopticon slides, and photos documenting every aspect of the war including the political lead-up, the reality of slavery, some of the more quotidian aspects of camp life, meetings of military and political leaders, the surrender, and the apprehension and execution of Lincoln’s assassins. And of course, yes, the aftermath of battle, including numerous photos of the maimed, taken for the benefit of doctors and medical students.

These superlative exhibitions are timed to coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (last month). Three cheers to both the Smithsonian and the Met for honoring the event in this way. The shows will be on view at the Met  through September 3. For more info go to:

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