The Civil War and American Art exhibit ended its run at the National Portrait Gallery a few weeks back and is currently under installation at the Metropolitan Museum here in the Big Apple. It will be showing all summer and is well worth the trip. Though I saw it in DC, I intend to go back–probably more than once–during its time here in Gotham. There are many great works in the show; my favorites were the landscapes of Conrad Wise Chapman, a Virginian who lived with his family in Italy prior to the war with his artist father. The Chapman works on display in this sesquicentennial show are primarily landscapes he painted for the Ordinance Bureau during the Confederate defense of Charleston Harbor. On the simplest level the paintings work as literal representations of Confederate camp life during the siege, just as Winslow Homer’s sketchings depicted the quotidian life of Union soldiers. Chapman’s works are more than that though. Whatever his thoughts on secession, slavery, and the other issues of the day, Chapman was an artist of the first order. He reminds me of the Dutch Masters in his use of natural light. He was equally adept at depth and scale.
Chapman was all but forgotten in the decades after Appomattox. Southerners, impoverished by the war’s destruction, did not have the financial resources to buy art the way their Northern counterparts did. The overt Confederate imagery was another minus in the art market of the Gilded Age. Chapman remained active throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, mainly living as an expatriate in Mexico and Europe. Most of the Charleston Series ended up in the care of the Museum of the Confederacy in 1898. Chapman lived another twelve years and died in poverty in 1910. Now we may be entering something of a Chapman renaissance. First, there was his place in the Civil War and American Art exhibition. Now, Sotheby’s is auctioning one of his postwar paintings, Paisaje del Valle de Mexico con el Lago de Texcoco, later this month. The landscape is projected to sell for a cool $125,000-175,000.
(image/Gibbes Museum of Art)