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American nightmare: the art of the Civil War

A show in Washington DC illustrates how the Civil War spawned a new breed of artists who were unafraid to depict the horror of battle, says Adrian Hamilton

War has been the defining challenge for artists, as for society, for virtually all of history. And for most of the last century and a half the painting and sculpture have vied with photography as the means of best expressing its reality and its consequences. Nowhere more so than in the American Civil War.

Before then it was possible to picture a battle within the frame of a painting. It was not that artists ignored the horrors of war. Goya depicted the ravages of the decade-long Peninsular War in a series of engraving that have never been equalled for their honesty and their anger at what it was doing to victim and perpetrator alike. Turner took a particularly mournful view of the dead and dying that remained on the field of Waterloo the day after. But the portrayal of war was largely left in the hands of the celebrators of the victorious: Benjamin West, Jacques Louis-David and others. War was terrible but it was also heroic.

The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, changed all that. It was the first full-out conflict in which the mechanics and destruction overwhelmed the individual actions of men, the first to be fought in prolonged and unremitting trench warfare. It was also the first to be covered by the new art of photography. Roger Fenton had been out in the Crimea a decade earlier, in a conflict that had seen the first signs of machine over man, but his pictures were largely traditional in composition, capturing the landscape, the encampments and the troops but not the destruction. The American Civil War was different. As many as 200 photographers are thought to have taken pictures and, in the hands of the best of them, the full reality of what it did to body and place was brought home to the public.

The impact of the photographers and the efforts of the painters to find a way of responding to the cataclysm that had fallen on their country is the subject of a quite remarkable and searching exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. It is not a grand show. It is certainly not a comprehensive one. But what it does is to give a sense of the actuality that was now being shown by the photographers and the struggle traditional painters had in trying to respond in their own way to the conflict about them.

The photographs – new to me – taken by George Barnard of the devastation wreaked by Sherman's famous March to the Sea are stark evocations of the ruination of war. Alexander Gardner's shots of the dead after the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg are as great and as grim as any photographer achieved in the European world wars or Vietnam.

Painters couldn't compete with that, nor did they try. There were those, such as Thomas Buchanan Read and Fabrino Julio, who attempted to crown the conflict with works that glorified the heroism and the generals. But the Smithsonian, which eschews them, makes the point that these seemed archaic even then. By the time war broke out, American artists had moved away from painting in the European Grand Manner. Instead, they preferred landscape painting as a means of expressing the unique character of American "nature" and a folksy genre painting to describe its people. That hopefulness and fondness couldn't survive the war, for all the first belief that it would all be over in few weeks or months.

The skies of the painters became darker, the clouds more threatening, the mood more melancholy. Our Banner in the Sky painted by Frederic Edwin Church, the finest landscape artist of the day, as war broke out in 1861, has the sky violently streaked in red show. His pictures from a visit to the far north of the same period show nature, majestic but remorseless in its solitude, with man's presence puny and perished. Sanford Robinson Gifford's Twilight in the Catskills from the same year paints a picture of eerie silence, the sky dark red and the trees in the foreground bare of leaves and branches. A haunting pairing of two views of precisely the same spot, Paradise Rocks, Newport, painted by John Frederick Kensett in 1859 and then in 1865, has the former peopled with ducks and aglow with the sunrise while the latter is without life and only a dim light coming from behind lowering clouds.

The genre painters, in the meantime did their best, picking out the odd skirmish, the ruined house and the fleeing civilians, particularly the slaves trying to escape to freedom in the northern lines. But they found it difficult to express the sheer magnitude of the horror about them, not least because the battles took place over such a wide area and there was no market for painted pictures of mortality. They could capture the human face of the military camp or the battered fort but not the facelessness of the hundreds of thousands of the dead.

Where they came into their own was in the aftermath of war, when minds turned to the problems of reconciliation, Reconstruction and the place of the emancipated slaves in the new world. It might have been a cause for sentimentality. And there is certainly that in some of the pictures. But in the hands of Eastman Johnson and, above all, Winslow Homer, the pictures are far more ambiguous and unsettled. In a deeply disquieting work, A Visit from the Old Mistress, painted by Homer a decade after the war, the artist portrays the grey-haired white lady, taut and still imperious, staring uneasily at a group of equally uncomfortable former slaves.

American painting never quite recovered its old optimism, at least not until French Impressionism and Modernism gave it a new life in colour. Ironically, it was the photographers, taking their cumbersome cameras into the wilderness, who sustained the sense of awe in nature. The scars left by civil war and a botched Reconstruction ran deep. An exhibition anyone interested in the soul of the United States should visit. And if you can't, there's an excellent, and heavy, catalogue that accompanies it.

The Civil War and American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC (americanart.si.edu) to 28 April