Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on on May 17, 2010 with with permission of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Mourning the Losses of the Civil War
By Elizabeth Johns
The phrase "circuit of the summer hills" dates from a sentimental poem of the 1820s by William Cullen Bryant, who as a young man was hoping that eventually friends would mourn him in his grass-covered grave. Decades later, in his newspaper column, "A Bivouac of the Dead," former Union soldier Ambrose Bierce used the phrase in anger to mourn the young Confederates who lost their lives in the battlefields of West Virginia and lay in unmarked graves. Artists tried to absorb the war's impact. History painters reconstructed traumatic events, and landscapists painted the beloved valleys and mountains. Sculptors and monument builders, printmakers and poets, jewelers and private citizens expressed their mourning in images and words.
The exhibition, Circuit of the Summer Hills, tells its stories in a variety of media. The most dramatic is the painting by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1840-1924) The Burning of Chambersburg. When the Chambersburg citizens were confronted with a ransom demand by General McCausland on July 28, they refused to meet it. The sum was considerably higher than that of the demand of Hagerstown -- $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency. On July 30, Confederates burned the town, although some soldiers refused to participate, considering it barbaric. Knight, who was born in Pennsylvania and a Union soldier, painted the trauma experienced by Chambersburg residents.
Landscape paintings by artists who had supported different sides reveal post-war brooding about the meaning of the nation. Several sunsets by northern artists imply the end of an agreed-upon national identity, quite changed from the earlier ideal of a God-blessed new Jerusalem. These works include Jasper Francis Cropsey's Autumn Landscape with View of River and Thomas Bailey Griffin's Summer Landscape at Sunset. Cropsey, a New Yorker, spent the years from 1855 to 1863 in England, where his landscapes of the American autumn, with its red maple leaves, were popular. When he returned to the United States at the age of forty, he set up his studio in New York and painted allegorical pictures that revealed his distress at the Civil War. In Autumn Landscape with View of River, the artist's preoccupation with autumn and the sunset may suggest a coming apocalypse. End of the world or not, as a painter who used close detail to convey God's presence in nature, Cropsey captured the mournful spirit of his fellow citizens experiencing the losses of war.
Other landscapists presented storms or desolation. George Inness (1825-1894), in Coming Storm, Montclair, painted the broad sweep of pastoral nature affected by uncontrollable winds. Only John Frederick Kensett, in Mountain Pool, celebrated the hope of an unruined nature, with its mountain cliffs, waterfalls, pool and dying foliage, Kensett's landscape celebrates a fall evening in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Kensett painted Mountain Pool with the precise style typical of American painters in the 1840s and 1850s, a style that suggests the confidence with which Americans viewed their roll on the continent. After the war, with its shock and sadness, younger and even experienced landscapists assumed a looser style. Influenced by French painting with obvious brushstrokes that eventually flowered in Impressionism, the painted an ever-changing nature.
Landscapists who had supported the Confederacy in Maryland went south to reclaim the sacredness of the landscape. Born in Germany, Adalbert John Volck (1828-1912) fled to America after the Revolution of 1848. He settled in Baltimore, where he became a successful dentist and part-time artist. Furious when Union troops overran Baltimore and ruined his dental practice, he became an open Confederate sympathizer, which he remained the rest of his life. During the conflict, he drew anti-Union and pro-Confederate prints, including caricatures of President Lincoln. After the war, he resumed painting, traveling throughout unsettled Western Maryland and West Virginia to make such landscapes as Mountain Gap, with stream, deer, rising mists and stark, dead trees on mountainsides. Graduated blues and yellows mark the sky, through which dark clouds float.
Another landscapist to head south was John Ross Key, the grandson of Francis Scott Key, who sought out southern Virginia to paint such rolling, enduring landscapes as Cumberland Mountains. Key was loyal to the Southern cause. Born in Hagerstown, but raised in Washington, D.C., he served as a second lieutenant in the Confederate Army Corps of Engineers at Charleston, South Carolina after several years of working with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
A witness to the start of the Civil War, he painted among other works an image of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. After the war, he studied in Munich and Paris and returned to the United States to paint wilderness sites throughout the mid-Atlantic region, New England and California. In Cumberland Mountains the artist pays tribute to the mountains, a thickly forested area that extends from northeastern Tennessee to West Virginia in Key's beloved south. The sun has set, leaving its warm glow over the distant, dark mountains and the river. The artist frequently alluded to the passing of time in his work, implying the changed meaning of the national identity after the war.
On of the most prominent aspects of the exhibition is memorabilia about President Lincoln. Gutzon Borglum's sculpture Head of Lincoln reveals his close study of photographs of the President. The knit brows, hooded eyes, full lower lip, sunken cheeks, and even the wart on his check place the brooding man before us. Carving the head directly into the stone, Borglum emphasized the right side of Lincoln's face, which he considered the more expressive. The sculpture, created more than sixty years after the end of the Civil War and by an artist who was born after the war, is a testimony to society's enduring preoccupation with Lincoln. Known for his monumental sculpture carved into Mount Rushmore, Borglum considered this portrait as among his finest work.
About the Author
Dr. Elizabeth Johns, PhD, is professor emerita in Art History, University of Pennsylvania.
About the Exhibition
The exhibition Circuit of the Summer Hills: Mourning the Losses of the Civil War is on view at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts January 16, 2010 - February 9, 2011. The exhibition is co-curated by Elizabeth Johns and Jennifer Chapman Smith.
The exhibition is sponsored in part by Rest Haven Funeral Chapel and Cemetary and Mrs. Theron K. Rinehart. Additional funding was received through a grant from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Areas, with funds from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, an instrumentality of the State of Maryland.
(above: Daniel Ridgway Knight (American, 1839-1924), The
Burning of Chambersburg, 1867, Oil on canvas, 49 x 62 _ inches. Museum
Purchase, 1968, A1541)
Resource Library editor's note
The above article was reprinted in Resource Library on May 17, 2010 with permission of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, which was granted to TFAO on May 12, 2010. The article also appeared in the May-June 2010 issue of American Art Review.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Jennifer Chapman Smith, Assistant Curator, Washington
County Museum of Fine Arts, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting
the above text.
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