Editor's note: The following essay was first published in myVMFA, the member magazine for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in connection with the exhibition Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts June 2 through August 26, 2012. The essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 14, 2012 with permission of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was granted to TFAO on July 13, 2012. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Poignancy of Painting and Poetry in Bold, Cautious, True
by Sylvia Yount
When I first saw my friend Kevin Sharp's eye-opening exhibition, Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era, at Memphis's Dixon Gallery and Gardens in 2009, I was eager to bring it to VMFA. In addition to showcasing one of our seminal Mellon Collection paintings, Eastman Johnson's A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, the exhibition resonates on different levels for Virginia's state art museum. Taking its title from Walt Whitman's moving poem "As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Wood," Sharp's effort explores the layered meanings and moods of 1860s American art against the poetry of one of America's chief "scribes" of the war. VMFA's reprise of the show also coincides with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, not to mention that of Johnson's eyewitness account of a dramatic episode in the war.
Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), America's best known genre painter of the period, established his reputation with the 1859 display of his controversial Negro Life at the South, now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society. As years passed, Johnson's abolitionist sympathies (only hinted at in the earlier work) became more pronounced. In A Ride for Liberty, painted less than a year after the war began, there is no doubt of the artist's allegiances.
Johnson's older brother, Reuben, had enlisted in the Massachusetts militia at the start of the Civil War, and it may have been a letter home that drew the artist to the front. By late February 1862, Eastman Johnson was accompanying General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac in Northern Virginia as a civilian observer. In March, he was at Centreville when a horse and riders came galloping out of the morning mist -- the scene that later inspired A Ride for Liberty. Johnson never learned if the family successfully evaded the slave-catchers of Virginia and reached the Union lines. It is that unknown outcome that gives the work its powerful "liminal" quality -- staged on the threshold of perpetual suspense.
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who would soon outrank the older Johnson as American's leading genre painter, is represented by three works in Bold, Cautious, True -- including another Mellon Collection painting, Army Teamsters. As a special artist on assignment for Harper's Weekly, Homer spent two months at the front in Virginia during the 1862 Siege of Yorktown. A number of his Civil War paintings were inspired by that transformative experience.
One particularly revealing representation of the crisis and its lingering effects is Homer's Trooper Meditating beside a Grave. The small, vertical oil depicts a solitary cavalryman, lost in thought, examining a dilapidated grave marker in the woods of Virginia. While his face is hidden from the viewer, his concentrated sadness is palpable. Thinly painted in layers of scumbled under- and overpainting, the work's sketchlike quality suggests what art historian Elizabeth Johns has called "a scene so intense that finishing it with solid forms and clear outlines would have depleted its emotional depth." Johns queries if this evocative picture by Homer represents a private meditation, a work in which the artist made explicit the subtext that haunts all of his Civil War imagery -- the fear of death and the emotional cost of war. While the work seems to reveal Homer's own feelings (and must have held personal meaning for its first owner, the landscapist Sanford Gifford -- who had lost three brothers and served in uniform himself), sentiments of loss and memory were pervasive throughout the country by 1865. After more than 620,000 deaths on both sides of the four-year conflict (with another 480,000 wounded), America was mourning not only its young men but its national innocence.
Walt Whitman expressed this shared pain and grief with great potency in the poem "As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods," which has uncanny resonance with Homer's haunting image. In the winter of 1864, the poet traveled to the frontlines of Culpeper, Virginia. Having worked a year in the hospitals of Washington, D.C., he wanted to be sure his efforts were not needed more in field hospitals. Whitman spent several days in the Union camp, and was exhilarated by the proximity to the fighting and the camaraderie of the healthier soldiers. But death was everywhere. His poem describes coming across a makeshift grave marker in the woods, inscribed with the epitaph "Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade."
As Kevin Sharp concludes in the thoughtful catalogue that accompanies his exhibition, it's unlikely that Whitman actually stumbled upon this inscription in the Virginia woods (he'd used similar language in a poem that appeared in his 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass). Yet that lyrical refrain -- "Bold, cautious, true" -- resounded loudly, not only in the context of the hastily buried anonymous soldier encountered by the poem's narrator, but in the memory of the sick and wounded Whitman had cared for -- "loving comrades" all. Sharp's adoption of these three words for his exhibition title also informs our understanding of the American artists, writers, soldiers, and those left behind to heal the wounds of war while "wandering many a changeful season to follow."
(above: Eastman Johnson (American, 1824-1906), A Ride for Libery--The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, 1862, oil on board. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Paul Mellon Collection)
(above: Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), Trooper Mediating beside a Grave, 1865, oil on canvas. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska)
About the author
Dr. Sylvia Yount is Chief Curator and Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 14, 2012 with permission of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was granted to TFAO on July 13, 2012.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Suzanne Hall, Chief Communications Officer, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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