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Terrain of Freedom: American Art and the Civil War


An exhibition that explores the idea of freedom as it was represented by various American artists during the Civil War period remains on display in Galleries 141 and 142 through November 28, 1999. Terrain of Freedom: American Art and the Civil War highlights two recent major Art Institute acquisitions: John Quincy Adams Ward's sculpture The Freedman (1863) and Albert Bierstadt 's painting Mountain Brook (1863), both of which were featured attractions in the 1863 annual exhibition at New York's National Academy of Design. In addition to being critical successes at the time, each carried specific iconographic meanings related to the Civil War. Through a rich display of paintings, prints, photographs, and sculpture, this exhibition probes how the concept of freedom -- as it related to the "great national conflict" and the burning issue of emancipation -- was seen by Americans before and during this crucial period in American history.

Terrain of Freedom is divided into two sections, one revolving around The Freedman and one around Mountain Brook. The first focuses on strong images of African American slaves and freedmen in Civil War-era society. Modeled from life, The Freedman is widely considered the first and most accurate representation of an African American figure to be cast in bronze. Freed slaves were commonly portrayed in the 1860s as being dependent on, and indebted to, their eventual emancipator Abraham Lincoln. The Freedman's popularity, however, can be seen as a response to Ward's presentation of his subject as independent, strong, and dignified -- an agent of his own liberation. The sculpture further relates to the historical role that African Americans played as soldiers, who joined the Union Army in great numbers to fight for their own freedom. Other works in this section of the exhibition -- by Currier & Ives, Samuel J. Miller, and Alexander Gardner -- expand upon the portrayal of African Americans as elevated in social standing and fighting to determine their own fate in achieving citizenship and political rights. (left: John Quincy Adams Ward,The Freedman, modeled in plaser1863, bronze, 19 5/8 x 15 3/4 x 9 3/8 inches, Roger McCormick Endowment, 1998.1)

The Mountain Brook section presents a number of visual images of the American landscape and examines their metaphorical relationship to freedom. Responding to the crisis of this country's greatest internal conflict, artists transformed natural events -- particularly autumn scenes -- into a type of visual poetry that addressed the concerns of a nation at war with itself. Bierstadt, for example, portrayed the White Mountains of New Hampshire as virginal, unspoiled by civilization. Although it was a recognizably northern landscape, Mountain Brook also functioned as an emblem for the nation as a whole, both a signal image of peaceful times and a reminder of the brutal confrontation then raging, with the simple details of nature taking on symbolic meanings. Autumn foliage, for example, is seen as fratricidal blood spilled upon the land, a passing from life to death. In addition to the nationalistic Mountain Brook, particularly significant are On the St. Anne's, East Canada (1863), by the African American artist Robert Scott Duncanson, and Our Banner in the Sky (1861) by Frederic Edwin Church. As the time's most popular form of American artistic expression, these landscape paintings held the power to address the need for national unity in a country otherwise torn by Civil War. (left: Albert Bierstadt, Mountain Brook, 1863, oil on canvas, 44 x 36 inches, Restricted gift of Mrs. Herbert A. Vance; fund of an anonymous doner; Wesley M. Dixon, Jr., Fund and Endowment; Henry Homer Strausss and Patrick G. Wacker endowments; through prior acquisitions of various donors, including Samuel P. Avery Endowment, Mrs. George A. Carpenter, Frederick S. Colburn, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Harding, International Minerals and Chemicals Corp., Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Loeff, Mrs. Frank C. Miller, Mahlan D. Moulds, Mrs. Clive Runnells, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Stone, and the Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1997.365)

Ward's The Freedman and Bierstadt's Mountain Brook are masterful works in themselves. When their historical meaning is unpacked and placed within a broader spectrum of Civil War-era visual culture, Terrain of Freedom: American Art and the Civil War opens a window on this country's most difficult moment: a moment when freedom was the issue.


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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