GRAFTON -- The American Civil War often comes alive to today's students in the form of photographs of dead soldiers or journal entries written by those who witnessed its horrors.
But Eleanor Jones Harvey, the senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, believes landscape paintings are an underrated medium that can shed light on the calamity that pitted former countrymen, and often family members, against one another. That's why she is flying from Washington, D.C., to co-host a lecture on art's power to convey the intense emotions of the time period.
Entitled "The Coming Storm: The Civil War and American Art," the slideshow lecture will feature artwork that from the Smithsonian's 75-piece exhibition that recently concluded. The event, co-hosted by the Windham Foundation, is free and open to the public and will be held in the White Church at 6:30 p.m., on Thursday, Oct. 24. Harvey's presentation will include 25 to 30 pieces, including works by artists Frederic Church and Winslow Homer, that highlighted the exhibition. A question-and-answer session will be held after Harvey's talk.
The show ran at the museum through April and then was featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through Monday, Sept. 2.
Harvey told the Reformer the Civil War is not represented much through landscape paintings because many artists of the day chose to explore America's wild beauty and preserve on canvas the God-given art found in nature. She also said that while some artists depicted the devastation of the Civil War, many chose not to because of the circumstances surrounding it.
"During the American Revolution, we sent the British empire packing and we had every right to celebrate," she said. "But the Civil War was kind of like a fistfight at a family reunion. There's no market for paintings of Americans killing each other."
Harvey said her talk will focus not on the battles themselves, but how they were interpreted through landscape art, which she said is often left out of the discussion when it comes to the Civil War.
"I want to make people understand a little bit about the war and how important the visual arts were for people of that time. People stood in lines for hours to view paintings at their debuts. It's the pre-IMAX experience," she said. "I'm really going to try to bring these paintings to life."
Harvey said the artists that chose to paint the images of the Civil War responded to a national crisis and how it changed Americans' ambitions for their own civilization at a time when the world appeared to be ripping at the seams.
Melissa Gullotti, the director of communications at the Windham Foundation, said she thinks the presentation will appeal to everyone from art students to amateur historians to Civil War buffs.
"We are so delighted on all levels. This is rare -- for people in southern Vermont to hear a lecture from someone of Mrs. Harvey's caliber," she said. "It's a chance to learn about American history in a totally different way."
Gullotti and the Windham Foundation had a close call, as it appeared Harvey would be unable to go through with the presentation due the shutdown of the federal government. Her museum of American art is part of the Smithsonian Institute, which falls under federal jurisdiction, and all employees were prohibited from working or even volunteering their time in their fields. Harvey told the Reformer she was literally locked out of the building and could not access her computer for the 16-day duration of the shutdown, which ended last Wednesday. She said she was forced to cancel two speaking engagements in that time because she faced the possibility of jail time and a $5,000 fine for doing anything that represents the Smithsonian Institute.
"I became a civilian. I chased after my kids ... and got really into cooking," she said with a slight laugh. "It was an interesting civics lesson."
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.