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The Civil War: Frederic Church Makes a Statement

Rural Intelligence Road Tripsby Betsy Miller

Before cameras were common, the cognoscenti learned about the physical world from paintings.  Salons and art openings weren’t just for creative contemplation, they were opportunities to be educated.  And the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, among the country’s premier artists, were each received by an eager public as though they were breaking news.

So it made headlines when Church changed the title of his 1861 New York City gallery show from The Icebergs to The North, a statement of support for troops heading off to battle the South.  The Union’s tattered red, white and blue, a result of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, had just been displayed at a rally in Manhattan’s Union Square.  Along with the rest of the crowd, Church was outraged.

All wars are controversial.  And the Civil War was one that engendered exceptionally strong feelings on both sides.  Well known figures of the period used their notoriety to publicize their positions.  Church was no different.  He was one of the most famous men in America – a 19th century rock star, so he made a point of creating a painting that stated his position – clearly.

Rural Intelligence Road TripsRally ‘Round the Flag, a new exhibition at Olana, traces both a nation’s journey and an artist’s moral stand.  When Church looked out the windows of his hilltop home, not only did he see his beloved Catskills, he saw a broken nation.  Using paint as a photo-journalist uses silver nitrate, Church created compelling images that enraged some, uplifted others.  This exhibition reflects his talent as a propagandist – his interpretation of the shock and awe found on the battlefield.  The centerpiece of the current show: Church’s 1861 oil, Our Banner in the Sky, is a tattered flag against a background of the Catskills.  What might seem jingoistic today was so resonant at the time, that it was used on a widely disseminated patriotic poster.

The presentation, assembled with advice from Dr. Kevin J. Avery, senior research scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and an expert on Church, also includes the work of a young artist friend of Church’s.  John S. Jameson died at the age of 22, his final days spent in the infamous prison at Andersonville, GA.  The exhibition’s curators have located all six paintings Jameson was known to have completed.  They are presented together for the first time.  One of them, Landscape, completed in 1860, was sent to Church by Jameson’s mother after her son’s death.

Rally ‘Round the Flag:
Frederic Edwin Church and the Civil War

Olana State Historic Site
May 26 - October 30, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Related event:

Free at Last
A dramatic reading of a true story told
to Mark Twain by his cook, a freed slave,
followed by a discussion.
Hudson Opera House
Sunday, May 29, 3 p.m.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 05/21/11 at 12:33 PM • Permalink