After the war ended in 1865, Homer created a large body of work depicting the lives of blacks during and after the war. The Bright Side (1865) is a snapshot in the life of five black Union teamsters, four of whom are sleeping outside their tent, shading their eyes with rumpled hats from the afternoon sun. A fifth teamster peaks his head out of the tent flap with a look of determination, staring directly into the eye of the viewer. Pack mules and supply wagons surround their tent glowing yellow in the sun’s late afternoon light — a beacon of hope for a better, brighter life to come.

Eleven years later, however, that life was still an enigma for many blacks in the South. President Lincoln had been assassinated, and the nation — once again united — had differing views on how to rebuild. In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), Homer paints with the colors and shadows of the great Dutch masters an interior scene that could be found on plantations across the decimated South — freed slaves, still living in poor conditions and yet no longer forced into labor, confronted by the mistress of the plantation — complicated roles no longer defined by bills of sale, but, more often than not, by sharecropper relations.

One of the last paintings on the first floor of the exhibit is The Girl I Left Behind Me (circa 1872) by Eastman Johnson. It is a harrowing end to an exhibition that seeks to depict America’s bloody civil war with artistic snapshots of battlefields, camps, lookout posts, and slave quarters — those left behind, carrying battle scars of their own: scars of the heart, not of the flesh. A young girl, barely pubescent, stands with one foot forward, one foot askance, her side profile looking over her left shoulder as if searching for her beloved in the muted background devoid of any living thing. She carries books in her arms, and wears, presumably, a wedding band on her ring finger. Her auburn hair, not dissimilar to the waving flags depicted in many of the previous paintings, flows behind her. Her story was the story of many widows of the South — youth and innocence stolen at young ages as they realized their beaus and husbands would not be returning home. The scarlet lining of her ebon cloak, symbolic of the blood spilled.

Paintings of the Civil War, over 60 in total, are coupled with a series of photographs by Timothy H. Sullivan and George N. Barnard. Moments are frozen in time — bodies strewn across battlefields, crumpled in rustic bunkers, blood dripping down a face, a lone rifle standing at attention — and serve as stark reminders that the renditions of Homer, Johnson and Chapman were not the machinations of an artist’s mind but rather the reality of America’s Civil War.

As you conclude your travel through time — ending with Barnard’s humbling photographs of Charleston in rubbles — a bright light guides you up a staircase, and you arrive at the entrance of the last installation of The Civil War and American Art: masterworks by painters of the Hudson River School. And what an ascension it is from Dante’s hell into the heavenly life force of nature’s beauty!

The larger-than-life oils span the walls — majestic portrayals of the American landscape, which moments earlier had been strewn with military installations and dead bodies. It is the emotional counterpoint to human destruction, simultaneously shedding light on humanity’s frailty and nature’s permanency, even when destroyed by man.

In 1847, art critic Henry T. Tuckerman reviewed the Hudson River School:”Numerous modern artists are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impressions… And where should this kind of painting advance if not in this country? No blind authority here checks the hand or chills the heart of the artist. It is only requisite to possess the technical skill, to be versed in the alphabet of painting, and then under the inspiration of a genuine love of nature ‘to hold communion with her visible forms’ in order to achieve signal triumphs in landscape, from the varied material so lavishly displayed in our mountains, rivers, lakes, and forests — each possessing characteristic traits of beauty, and all cast in a grander mold and wearing a fresher aspect than in any other civilized land.”

And it is the moral impressions that effervesce from the canvases in this room. The Iron Mine, Port Henry, New York (circa 1862) by Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897), bleeds with iron deposits down the side of a craggy mountainside slipping gracefully into the Hudson River, while unearthly emerald greens glow through the dead ice in Church’s The Iceberg (1861), and a rainbow arcs from the hardened rocks into a verdant green hilltop with palm trees in Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) — a hopeful symbol of healing and rejuvenation one year after the war ended.

It is with heavy heart that one makes a visit to see the Met’s new exhibit. War’s destruction didn’t die out with the American Civil War of the 1860s. Wars continue to blaze across the globe, and with modern technologies, the aftermath can be even more gruesome — as we see through the eyes of brave men and women who follow in the footsteps of the Homers, Chapmans, O’Sullivans and Barnards, and provide real-time imagery to a hungry public.

The Met did it right when placing the great Hudson River School paintings one floor higher than the war images. Not because they are better, but because they return to us hope for humanity.

“The Civil War and American Art” runs until September 2, 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is located at 1000 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10028. For more information, you can call 212-535-7710 or visit the Web site at

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Featured image: Eastman Johnson. “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” 1870-75. Oil on canvas. 42 x 34 7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.