Envisioning the Civil War and Slavery: Contrabands and Combat in American Art

AHA Session 66
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Sutton Center (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Phillip D. Troutman, George Washington University
Contraband Portraits: Vexed Images of African American Emancipation
Jill Vaum Rothschild, University of Pennsylvania
Monument, Commemoration, and Interpretation at the Corinth Contraband Camp
Renée Ater, University of Maryland, College Park
Rendering Reconciliation: Xanthus Smith at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition
Eva McGraw, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel, emerging from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s most recent cohort of research fellows, examines visual representational strategies relating to two core but contested aspects of the American Civil War: the liminal status of ‘contraband of war’ and the ephemeral experience of battle. Though Mark Smith has recently demonstrated that the tendency to denigrate the nonvisual undermines the historiography of the Civil War, this panel argues for a greater knowledge of how the visual functioned during the war and in the formulation of its memory. Moreover, scholars have generally rendered imagery peripheral as a body of evidence in their investigations of the conflict. Though wartime contemporaries frequently conceded that the experiences of slavery and battle were indescribable, they ultimately turned to visual culture as an effective medium to record and convey these experiences. By employing approaches that combine traditional histories of the war with visual studies and art histories, this panel will offer fresh perspectives on how artists represented 'contrabands' and combat during the war, in the postbellum era, and into the twenty-first century. These depictions, appearing in a multitude of media, have never been consistent and were often challenged.

The first paper considers ‘contraband’ portraits as a means to produce ambivalent symbols of emancipation, including several cartes de visite that acknowledge the subjectivity and individuality of their sitters while co-opting their likenesses for widely circulated, anti-slavery war propaganda. Such images raise questions of agency and self-possession that similarly vexed the fluid nature of freedom for African Americans in a wartime setting. The second paper affirms the ‘contraband’ figure as a continually resonant but complicated one by examining the representational challenges inherent in creating six commemorative ‘contraband’ statues at the Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth. Preceding the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, these statues offer a means to understand viable alternatives to engage public audiences with the Civil War through sculpture. Likewise, visual representations of battles, whether produced immediately or years after the engagement, demonstrate more about the creators themselves and the cultural context in which they produced the work, than they do about the lived experience of combat itself. The third paper will explore competing images of battles produced during the war by soldier-artists. While some soldiers propagated heroic depictions of combat (in line with popular wartime prints), others produced private reflections in their sketchbooks where they could explore the incompatibility of idealized depictions with the war’s inherent violence. Finally, the fourth paper examines naval veteran Xanthus Smith’s postbellum painting of a marine battle for the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Though Smith had initially painted southern landscape scenes that were fraught with references to emancipation, his shift towards a celebration of military heroism reflected the evolving culture of post-war reconciliation movements. Taken together, these four papers demonstrate previously unconsidered aspects of the complicated visual history and legacy of the Civil War. The panel’s audience will include scholars of slavery, the Civil War, cultural history, social history, and art history.

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