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Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era
July 5 - October 4, 2009
From July 5 to October 4, 2009, Dixon Gallery and Gardens presents Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era. Through excerpts of Whitman's writing paired with some of the most important artworks of the mid-nineteenth century, Bold, Cautious, True creates an authentic window to America's history and a poignant view of its bloodiest war.
A champion of America and the individual, Whitman contributed to the war through his literary talents and by nursing wounded soldiers. Although he published no poetry during the Civil War, he wrote many poems about his war experiences for later editions of his legendary Leaves of Grass. Highlighting Whitman's poems such as "Drum Taps," the literature of Bold, Cautious, True helps viewers read the exhibition and the period as a whole.
With Whitman's literary art, the work of artists such as Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Frederic Church, and John Frederick Kensett traces the emotional and political themes of the fratricidal war -- secession, death, emancipation, and an uncertain future for a young country. Organized into five thematic sections, The Poetics of a House Divided, The Poetics of Service, The Wound Dresser, The Poetics of Endings and Beginnings, and Bold, Cautious, True, this exhibition is a landmark study of American arts and history.
Bold, Cautious, True was organized by the Dixon Gallery and Gardens with an 180- page catalogue written by Kevin Sharp, Director of the Dixon. After closing at the Dixon the exhibition will travel to the Katonah Museum of Art from October 26 through January 24, 2010.
Summary: Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era
In mid-December 1862, as Civil War casualties and losses on both sides rose to an alarming number, Walt Whitman read in the New York Herald that his younger brother George was counted among the wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. With no indication of the severity of George's wounds, like many anguished family members in the North and the South, Whitman set out on the near impossible task of finding a loved one among so many fallen soldiers. Walt Whitman was forty-three years old when he traveled to Fredericksburg and later scoured the makeshift military hospitals of Washington, D.C. in search of George, whose injuries, the poet thankfully reported to their mother, were not severe. But as he moved through corridor after corridor of wounded veterans, Whitman saw firsthand the horror of the many whose were.
Whitman was convinced he would be of no value as a soldier, but he was determined to aid the Union cause and what it stood for in his view: the abolition of slavery and the unity of one American people. Typical perhaps of one whose poetry extolled the democratic ideal through the celebration of individualism, Whitman served his country by serving the individual elements of it. The poet tended to his fellow man, his fellow American, the wounded foot soldier, as he clung to life or suffered and died in Washington hospitals. Whitman spent the entirety of 1863 and much of 1864 and 1865 clerking in government offices to pay his expenses, but his real duty was passing long nights among the wounded, changing bandages, performing small favors, writing letters home for the sick, maimed, and dying, distributing gifts, and, as much as possible, keeping hope alive amid so much unspeakable carnage and death.
By the time the Civil War had started in April 1861, Whitman had already produced one of the essential masterpieces of American literature, not that it had been recognized as such, not that his position as a leading American poet was firmly established. In 1855, he had issued Leaves of Grass-an enigmatic, imagistic landscape of careening prose-verse lines, a literary portrait (or self-portrait) of a young, earthy nation, and a tour-de-force of poetic innovation that was reviewed and thoughtfully considered in the press, but went virtually unnoticed by the public. Based largely on Ralph Waldo Emerson's informal encouragement, Whitman hurried a second expanded edition of Leaves of Grass into publication in 1856, and after further conceptualization, more revision, and the addition of new poems, another edition appeared in 1860, the first to come out under the imprimatur of a commercial publisher.
Apart from short verses sent to newspapers in New York and Boston, Whitman published no poetry during the Civil War. However, he wrote prolifically and powerfully during the war years -- dispatches for The New York Times, letters to his family and friends, new poems awaiting publication, and revisions of earlier work; he was always revising. In giving voice and vision to the unprecedented casualties of the Civil War, Whitman summoned powers of observation and expression that are startling in their poignancy, but also in their originality and deeply personal character. In an era defined by union and confederacy -- one nation seeking to preserve its wholeness, another attempting to establish its own -- Whitman's writings salved and celebrated the spirit and integrity of individual identity. Amid staggering and formerly unimaginable death tolls, mob actions, riots, and massacres, and the expediency of Unknown Soldiers, unidentified remains, and mass graves, Whitman sang to individuality, asking of one dying soldier: "Leave me your pulses of rageLet them identify you to the future in these songs."
Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era is a study of the poetics of American painting, sculpture and graphic arts between 1861 and 1865. The exhibition and its accompanying publication look to Whitman's themes, language, metaphors, and poetic structures as vehicles for divining meaning beyond the descriptive or the narrative in the work of such seminal American artists as David Gilmour Blythe, Frederic E. Church, Robert Scott Duncanson, Sanford R. Gifford, George P. A. Healy, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, John Frederick Kensett, Jervis McEntee, Enoch Wood Perry, John Quincy Adams Ward, Worthington Whittredge, and others. But the exhibition will also identify changing ideas and attitudes that reveal themselves in American art of the 1860s, major shifts that Whitman's poetry and prose anticipate and that the Civil War hurried into effect.
There were contemporary American poets more frequently read than Whitman during the Civil War (and they were read by Whitman to wounded soldiers), versifiers who traded in sentiment and patriotic fervor. But no poet better captured the poetics of the war experience or more clearly identified the spaces between artistic intention and audience understanding, where the poetics of American art reside. In his poetry, prose, and even in his correspondence, Whitman articulated the profound social, cultural, ideological, and aesthetic upheaval that the violent rupture of the Civil War delivered to the feet of a nation.
The title "Bold, Cautious, True" is from Whitman's "As Toilsome I Wander'd Virginia's Woods." In the poem first published in 1865, the narrator discovers the grave of a fallen soldier and a tablet hastily nailed to a tree with the inscription: "Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade." The words rush back to the narrator again and again well after he has left the war and the autumn woods of Virginia behind. They also aptly describe American art and artists as they experienced and expressed the Civil War in the 1860s.
EXHIBITION AND PUBLICATION
Chapter/Section 1. The Poetics of a House Divided
One of the more poignant and frequently told stories in fratricidal conflicts like the American Civil War describes divisiveness so intense that it even cuts across family lines. The Civil War was rife with stories of brothers fighting brothers, fathers opposite sons, or cousins meeting for the first time on the battlefield. Abraham Lincoln had predicted in 1858 that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and in 1861, just months after his election to the presidency, the bitter and divisive national debate over slavery and state's rights proved that he was correct.
The Healy family of American portrait painters, George P. A. Healy who remained in the North and his younger brother, Thomas Cantwell Healy, who spent the war years in Port Gibson, Mississippi, was one notable example of a house divided along family lines. By then, George Healy had already painted the portrait of President-elect Lincoln. Louis Remy Mignot, a painter originally from Charleston, South Carolina -- the very heart of secession -- was by the late 1850s, part of the clubby inner circle of New York landscapists. Mignot would, however, abandon the locus of his successful career for England and Europe rather than live an enemy alien, choose sides, or have his loyalties questioned. Others, like Enoch Wood Perry, a Boston-native working in New Orleans when the war began, produced some of the most significant canvases of the Confederacy, though he was conflicted about its cause.
Lincoln and his counterpart in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Jefferson Davis, were remarkably eloquent men, whose poetic language helped bind their constituencies even as internal division beyond secession and sectional warfare threatened to destroy a weakened Union in the North and throw asunder a fragile Confederacy in the South.
Chapter/Section 2. The Poetics of Service
With the Confederate militia's attack of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861 came the rally for troops and the call to service in both the North and the South. A number of prominent and aspiring artists, flushed with patriotism, were among the first to enlist, including Sanford R. Gifford, David Johnson, and Jervis McEntee among many others. Images of men in service flourished during the war years, spread across such widely circulated publications as Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine. Popular demand for first hand glimpses of the Civil War was insatiable, and for intrepid illustrators willing to trek to the front, careers were made and the rewards were substantial.
Whitman saw a different image of the war than the battle scenes, the camp subjects, and the portrayals of heroism in Harper's or Leslie's. In his subtle descriptions of boys transformed by service into men, and then transformed again by what service entailed, his admiration of their character and commitment, and his almost fatherly pride in their bravery, Whitman evoked an at times darkly poetic vision of the war as it appeared in the faces of the wounded and dying. Some of the more poignant American paintings produced in the war years were less engaged in battles and their outcomes than in the circumstanced that had inspired the fight and its impact on those who served.
Chapter/Section 3. The Wound-Dresser
Walt Whitman famously characterized himself as a "Wound-Dresser" in a poem central to his experience during the Civil War. But the poet did more than replace bandages during the two years he volunteered in Washington, D. C. hospitals. He also came to know the young soldiers to whom he administered care, he witnessed the limitations and outright failures of the medical treatment they received, he openly criticized entrepreneurs who turned up at battle sites and hospitals (offering everything from ambulance service to embalming), and he participated in an at times hopeless effort to save lives.
After the appalling casualties of Bull Run, the first major battle of the war, Americans on both sides realized they were utterly unprepared to care for so many wounded. The Civil War precipitated a vast expansion of the Surgeon General's office in Washington and the establishment of one in Richmond, the construction or conversion of an unprecedented number of hospitals, the foundation of the United States Sanitary Commissions ("to do what government could not"), and it turned ordinary citizens such as Clara Barton, the Rev. Henry W. Bellows, Walt Whitman, and others, into hospital workers and national heroes.
American artists like everyone else cheered the successes and bemoaned the dismal failures of a beleaguered medical system during the Civil War. Their representations of health care, of the many new hospitals, of weary doctors and nurses, and of the recovered as well as those who never would offered poignant coda to the battle scenes spread across popular magazines. Artists such as Winslow Homer were among the many that depicted the recovery of individual soldiers as emblems of the recovery of a divided nation. The new priority that hospitals held in American life made them objects of fascination for many artists. They appear in dozens of paintings. American artists also eagerly participated in the sanitary fair movement from New York to Chicago. Manhattan's 1864 Metropolitan Sanitary Fair remains one of the most impressive exhibitions of nineteenth-century paintings ever held.
Chapter/Section 4. The Maryland State Fair, 1864
On 19 April 1861, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment was marching through Baltimore on its way to defend Washington, D. C. Maryland counted a large number of southern sympathizers among its population, some of whom, without provocation, savagely attacked the Massachusetts Sixth, killing four and leaving dozens more seriously wounded. In the wake of the assault, Maryland was eyed skeptically by the rest of the North, it was watched carefully by the Union army, and later minor insurrections in support of the Confederacy were suppressed with swift and stunning vigor.
However, the divided nature of Maryland made its expressions of loyalty to the North all the more profound and meaningful when they did occur. One of the more popular poems of the war years was not by Walt Whitman (of course), but by John Greenleaf Whittier, his "Barbara Frietchie." Barbara Frietchie was a nearly century-old resident of Fredericksburg, Maryland, who refused to remove the American flag from her home even as Stonewall Jackson's army passed on their way to Gettysburg. She famously called out to Jackson (or so Whittier had been told): "Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, /But spare your country's flag, she said."
During the spring of 1864, Baltimore became one of the first major cities in the North to hold a sanitary fair. Organized by the Ladies Union Relief Association in Baltimore, the 1864 Maryland State Fair of U.S. Soldier Relief was opened by Abraham Lincoln; it featured a parade of 3000 African-American soldiers, and an art exhibition that drew contributions from some of America's most important contemporary painters. John Frederick Kensett, Sanford R. Gifford, who had been stationed in Baltimore with the Seventh New York Regiment, Jervis McEntee, Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer and Alfred Miller were represented among many others. One particularly significant lender to the exhibition was the celebrated actor, Edwin Booth, whose brother, John Wilkes Booth, would assassinate the president just a year later.
Chapter/Section 5. The Poetics of Endings and Beginnings
The Civil War changed everything. In the wake of so much carnage, sectional division, and warfare, there was little possibility that the country, once reunited, would or could simply return to the values and ways of life that had sustained it through the first half of the century. The abolition of slavery represented a sea of change in American ideology, politics, demographics, and economics. But it was only the most prominent and essential of the changes that America faced as the war drew to a close. Innocence was replaced by experience, and boldly, cautiously, truly, America faced the end of social and cultural institutions it once believed would go on forever and the beginnings of others it only barely understood at the time.
America's artists were prepared to record these changes to American life and American values, and some like Eastman Johnson, John Quincy Adams Ward, and Winslow Homer either characterized that new American order or created emblems to the change itself. But what many artists did not recognize, especially the school of landscape painters who had risen to prominence in the 1850s was that their position as leaders in the great American dialogue about the visual arts would be altered as well. The so-called Hudson River School painters, so-called by their critics in the years after the Civil War to distinguish them from their younger rivals, produced grand and glorious paintings in the 1860s that were suffused in an all-encompassing twilight. Those setting suns hovering above sublime wilderness settings alluded to the end of the frontier and the frontier experience. But those same twilight subjects by Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Gifford, and others also pointed to the end of an era, they suggested the fleeting nature of human existence, made bitterly obvious by the Civil War, and, inadvertently, they served as eloquent elegies to their own aesthetic in decline -- to the end of their own golden age.
Chapter/Section 6: Bold, Cautious, True
By the close of the Civil War, Americans on both sides were exhausted by the fight and overwhelmed by the carnage. Ironically, in 1864 and 1865, as the war was coming to a close, as desertions were at their highest, and as soldiers on both sides dared to imagine surviving the war, there also existed among battle-scarred soldiers a strange disregard for human life. The war exacted a terrible toll, with more than 620,000 dead and 400,000 wounded. Life, death, and mourning all underwent reinvention in the American 1860s. In paintings like the Winslow Homer masterpiece, Defiance: Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, where a Confederate solider leaps upon a battlement and makes himself a willing human target, the emotional as well as the physical damage the war had wrought becomes instantly apparent.
As he changed bandages in Washington, D.C. hospitals, Whitman recognized that a return to the old ways before the Civil War was impossible, and more than that, it was undesirable. In Drum Taps, the poems he penned during the war years and later incorporated into his earlier and ongoing Leave of Grass, the poet pounded out a dirge for those departed and a brisk rhythm for a reunited nation to follow. Somehow, in the great self-contradiction that was Walt Whitman, he expressed the end and the beginning all at the same time. Bold, cautious, true, he was the loving comrade of both those the war had taken and they who had survived to begin a new era.
(above: Eastman Johnson, (1824-1906), A Ride for Liberty
- The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862, 1862, Oil on board, 21 _ x 26
inches. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, The Paul Mellon Collection)
(above: George Cochran Lambdin, (1830-1896), In the Beech Wood, 1862-1864, Oil on canvas, 28 x 24 inches. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; purchased through the Julia L. Whittier Fund and the Mrs. Harvey P. Hood W'18; P.988.4)
(above: Alfred Thompson Bricher, (1837-1908), Twilight in the Wilderness, 1865, Oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 42 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund, funds given by Jeanne and Rex Sinquefeld and Eleanor Moore; and bequest of Friederike Gottfried, gift of Nellie Ballard White, gift of Whitaker Charitable Foundation, gift of Mrs. Willard Bartlett, gift of Howard Russell Butler Jr., Museum Purchase, gift of James F. Ballard, bequest of Mrs. Martha C. Burbach, bequest of Professor Halsey C. Ives, bequest of Helen K. Baer, and bequest of Mrs. Madge V. Goodrich, by exchange, 22.2007)