Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era," the tremendously moving exhibition at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, is not a blockbuster. It's a slow burn, the kind of burn that incises heart and mind with images of civil war.
Dixon director Kevin Sharp wrote the catalog and curated the show, which includes paintings, prints, and sculptures on loan from such prestigious museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg.
Sharp weaves Walt Whitman's poetry, Abraham Lincoln's oratory, and some of the most significant artworks created by mid-19th century Americans into a compelling study of how a country torn apart by slavery, secession, and civil war was able to survive and rebuild.
Acts of great courage and great crassness became the norm as millions of Africans were enslaved and brother fought brother. A wealthy landowner sells his mixed-blood son in Thomas Satterwhite Noble's The Price of Blood. In Winslow Homer's oil on panel Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg, a Confederate soldier, driven to distraction by carnage and the South's impending defeat, climbs the ramparts, clinches his fists, and offers himself up as easy prey for Union sharpshooters.
In the triptych A Bit of War History, Thomas Waterman Wood paints a man as a runaway slave, a soldier, and a disabled veteran whose left leg has been amputated. The man's unwavering look of gratitude, in all three paintings, is unnerving until we consider that this former slave's life is now filled with memories of a daring escape to freedom, patriotic service, and the camaraderie of fellow soldiers instead of endless, back-breaking labor.
By the end of the war, all pretense and dross has burned away. We see it in the posture of a soldier, lanky and no longer young, who leans on his rifle next to his ruined mountain home in Henry Mosler's painting The Lost Cause. We hear it in "Oh Captain, My Captain," Walt Whitman's outpouring of grief for a president who saw his country through the war but did not live long enough to celebrate the victory. And, although we can barely make out the figures on horseback in Eastman Johnson's A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slaves, we can feel their intense focus as a mother, father, boy, and infant girl race across the countryside, getting as close to freedom as they can by dawn.
Many of the other artists in the show had their aesthetic sensibilities honed by war and created their most fully realized artworks after 1864.
In Alfred Thompson Bricher's 1865 painting Twilight in the Wilderness, a setting sun lights the underside of a cloudbank with what look like a series of small fires. Bricher repeats his touches of red-gold in fall foliage and a small campfire that warms two women.
Twilight in the Wilderness is not as luminous as landscapes painted by artists of the Hudson River School before the war. But the ground isn't frozen and the sky blanketed with red, as in Louis Mignot's Sunset, Winter, a painting that conjures up the harsh conditions, intense emotions, and bloodshed of war. There is, instead, just enough warmth and light in Bricher's work to allow the unaccompanied young women, widowed or orphaned perhaps by the war, to begin to make sense of things, to go on with their lives.