Book Review: The Civil War and American Art


by Eleanor Jones Harvey

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 318. Illus., notes, biblio., indices. $65.00. ISBN: 0300187335

This weighty, lavishly illustrated volume was prepared to coincide with the unique exhibition of Civil War paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, and other works being held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from December of 2012 through April of 2013.  It is by no means an “ordinary” art book. 

Harvey, former curator at the museum and author of several works on American art, uses the art to help tell the story of the war.  After a thoughtful introduction that discusses how the art generated by the Civil War fits into the broader framework of the American and Western artistic tradition, Harvey groups the works into five broad categories; “Landscape and the Metaphorical War,” “The Art of Wartime Photography,” “The Human Face of War,” “Abolition and Emancipation,” and “Aftermath.” 

In each category, Harvey discusses the works themselves, many of which are in full color, and some accompanied by preliminary sketches or variant versions.  The discussion includes profiles of many of the artists and the photographers, and often links particular works to the events that inspired them. 

For the serious student of the war, the sections on the photography and the human face of the war are particularly valuable.  Although many of the works included are well known, and have often been reproduced in books on the war, a surprising number are rather rare, and some have documentary value, including some of the photographs, Winslow Homer’s notes and some sketches for his “Sharpshooter,” some instances in which a photograph was turned into a full scale painting,  and so on.

By linking the works to the war, Harvey’s turns The Civil War and American Art into something far more useful than the usual “coffee table book.” An excellent work. 


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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