Hudson River School | American Civil War

The American Civil War

While the beginning of the decline of the Hudson River School is often ascribed to the Civil War, in truth many of the artists connected deeply to issues related to the war. Many responded with patriotic fervor and explored with great poignancy the sacrifices and traumas incurred by the national war. Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) is but one example of a Hudson River School artist whose work engaged directly with the war. Two weeks before the scheduled debut of Church’s sublime painting of the Arctic, The Icebergs (1861), Fort Sumter was bombarded, marking the beginning of the American Civil War. Instead of cancelling the unveiling of the painting at Goupil’s Gallery in New York, Church renamed his masterpiece Icebergs: The North. Enormous and nearly equal in size to The Heart of the Andes, and viewed to great acclaim by audiences in New York and Great Britain, Icebergs: The North signaled the artist’s support for the northern cause. The painting was transformed into a powerful rallying cry, imbued with the defiance and patriotism of his forebearer, the great German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich .

Church also pledged exhibition fees to assist the Union’s Patriotic Fund for the families of Union soldiers. In May 1861, in response to the patriotic fever that swept the North, Church painted Our Banner in the Sky, a sunrise landscape resembling a Union Flag. The image became a popular colored lithograph issued by Goupil & Company.

Other artists responded less overtly and more abstractly, exploring not only patriotic solidarity and national pride, but also suggesting the deep physical and emotional toll incurred by a nation torn asunder. Artists began employing a new visual vocabulary that imbued their works with a deep lyricism verging on expressionism. Certain characteristic techniques and subject matters mark these allegorical and bittersweet views of man’s natural surroundings: intense, sometimes high-keyed colorism; emotive atmospheres or moods; a focus on the twilight hours; and solitary, traversing figures.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) The Icebergs, 1861
Oil on canvas, 64½ x 112½ inches
Collection Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, gift of Norma and Lamar Hunt, 1979.28