February 26, 2013

The Civil War in American Art: Book Review

I’m so excited. I get to review Eleanor Jones Harvey’s The Civil War in American Art by Yale University Press.  If you like history and art, it is well worth looking into. 

As a Civil War aficionado, one tends to find much of the same information in many books.  The Civil War and American Art deals with many popular Civil War topics but does so from so refreshing an angle that even the most devoted Civil War reader will learn something new. Art is a reflection of society and this book reflects an honesty from a society so deeply ingrained in modern imagination that many people ignore what the society, itself created.    

Harvey seamlessly melds the art into the context of the day using excerpts from literature and first person accounts. The book does not only cover the war years but also includes the years leading to war as well as the decade after to place Civil War era art into its proper context. 

Harvey discusses well-known symbolism in pre-Civil War and Civil War literature and art such as the use of comets and meteors at the start of the war.  Shortly before the war, a meteor was seen by many from New York to Delaware. Many took it as an omen that John Brown, the radical abolitionist known as the “Meteor of War’s” prediction was coming true. On the gallows for his organization of a slave uprising, he wrote a note stating, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” It was striking symbolism used by artists and writers at the time who felt that their lives were about to change.      

Not excluding photography, Harvey introduces the rather unprecedented work of famous wartime photographers such as Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan and George S. Cook giving an in-depth look into the medium of photography as it was. In a time when almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, it is difficult to imagine just how shocking the images of war were to the people of the 1860s. From only ever seeing paintings and etchings of gallant soldiers fighting artistic battles to the sudden shift of seeing lifeless, mangled bodies piled like meat really brought the true cost of war home to people. 

This book is a very interesting read with stunning photographs. It gives a very in-depth look into the art and literature of the time, allowing the reader a better-rounded view on the culture of the people that created it. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for reviewing purposes but that in no way affected the content of my review.

1 comment:

  1. If you know little about the Civil War conflict in the U.S. (1861-1865), a trip to the Smithsonian American Art Museum this weekend will supply a quick education. And if you know a lot about the Civil War, this is a big show commemorating the war’s 150th anniversary you do not want to miss.


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