The most telling of all paintings about the Civil War, Winslow Homer’s “Prisoners from the Front” (1866), is enough on its own to save “The Civil War and American Art,” a show at the Metropolitan Museum, from the general inadequacy of art in the face of traumatizing world events. “Prisoners” pictures a youthful Union brigadier general, Francis Barlow, confronting a trio of captured Confederates—about to be fellow-citizens again, against their will—on a devastated field. Barlow, crisp and cool, with his hands clasped behind him, radiates professional rectitude. Two of the rebels are clad in near-rags: one is an inattentive, shambling young lout; the other a white-bearded man, his face clenched with anxiety. The third is a long-haired cavalier in high boots, his tight gray uniform negligently buttoned and his cap set at a rakish angle. He might be challenging his captor to a staring match. But Barlow is impervious; he lacks nothing except, perhaps, historical prescience. Does he detect in the prisoners the enduring alienation that we do? Homer, a rare artist who cannot lie, grasps and conveys that the Civil War was not really over, as it may never be. “The Civil War and American Art” complements another show at the Met, “Photography and the American Civil War,” which opened in April with a theatrical profusion of vintage prints, stereographs, ambrotypes, and tintypes, notably from the studios of the pioneering photojournalist Mathew Brady and of Alexander Gardner, a former Brady staff photographer who set up in competition with him.
more from Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker here.