NEH Summer Institute, Newark Musuem, part deux

Part Two, Newark Museum

We took some time to travel into the galleries at the Newark Museum and this gave me an opportunity to not only look at “Near Andersonville” up close, but also spend some time searching for images related to my particular subject of interest, Native Americans as portrayed during the Civil War era.  I was pleased to find a painting by Alfred Miller, “Shoshone women watering horses” as well as a piece by Alan Fisher, “Indians visiting the old hunting grounds” which come from prior the 1860s.  In the aftermath of the Civil War era, the Newark Museum displayed two additional examples including a sculpture by Edmonia  Lewis, “Hiawatha” 1868 and a ledger drawing by either an Arapahoe or Cheyenne in 1874.  These images, combined with some additional pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New-York Historical Society might provide the basis for my work on visualizing natives in the era.  These two weeks have given me an opportunity to get started on what hopefully will be a larger, rewarding project.

Sarah Burns and curator Holly Pyne Connor spent time with Lily Martin Spencer’s, “War Spirit at Home” , arguing that the painting can be described as somewhat subversive for the time period.  It is largely a family portrait, the mother holding a newspaper indicating victory at Vicksburg 1863.  Spencer completed the work in 1866 and was a very busy, important painter whose family life was chaotic (she had 13 children).  Sarah Burns talks about the tomboy motif  in the painting, which loosely resembles a piece featuring boys ‘training” in a martial manner.  The young girl in Spencer’s portrait has kepi on her head, and is unkempt as well as imagined to be making noise – all attributes that place her not in the ‘typical’ life/world of the 19th century middle class girl.  It was suggested that elements of this painting were somewhat autobiographical, so I asked Holly to expand on the subversive nature of the piece.  If, I wondered, it portrays elements of Spencer’s life and she had a chaotic experience, where was the subversiveness, especially given that the painting did not sell?  These are the types of questions that interest me because while I can see the point that a painting containing images not typical of women of the 19th century would be ‘against the grain,’ if the piece was not displayed in public or sold and it was linked to the artist’s personal life, I wonder whether Spender’s intent was anything beyond a fun image of her life.  Given our conversation with Sarah Burns after lunch, (which is described below), I’m fairly confident I can agree with both Sarah and Holly that there is a deeper meaning to Spencer’s painting.

Interdisciplinary opportunities in study & teaching
Our afternoon began with a close examination of “Home of the Red, White, and Blue,” by Lily Martin Spencer (1868ish).  This easel painting is about 24X30 and it contains colors that represent the union flag, children, a mother, an organ grinder, grandparents, a wounded veteran, and an Irish nursemaid among other items.  There are transparent messages such as the sewing basket on the flag which is in two pieces.  Sarah Burns made a reference to a Harriet Beecher Stowe essay on how women are the real architects of society in relation to the torn flag in need of repair.  This image is, perhaps, a postwar landscape of change.  Pr. Burns thought that the flag seems awfully important and considered what was the association of women and flags during the war years?

Spencer bases the flag and painting on well-established modes of gender expression and traditional roles.  It was women who fabricated flags and regimental colors.  You can see this idea in Currier& Ives pieces, Thomas Nast, E.C. Kellogg, or Winslow Homer.  Burns sees sees the women making havelocks by Homer as an important, connected piece to the general views of women in American society.  We were show examples of women and their roles in the war effort, such as the sheet music, “We’ll go down Ourselves”.  Women were also employed at armories in the United States – “Filling Cartridges,” Winslow Homer July 20, 1861; Pr. Burns asked us to consider whether images like this suggest a merging of the home and battlefronts?  This idea is particularly important when the Allegheny Arsenal explodes on the same day as Antietam, September 17, 1862.  Another interesting site on this explosion and its impact on women appears through the National Archives.

Going back to Martin’s painting, there is the question of why the flag is torn – is it wounded? Is it a feminized casualty of war? The flags were associated with the female body and the veteran, whose boot barely touches the flag is wounded as well, so the woman takes more of a leadership role?  Perhaps this idea is better demonstrated in Homer’s “Our Watering Places,” August 26, 1865
which would have been reflected as well in a popular song, “The Empty Sleeve,” (1865/1866).  Other questions emerge – is the organ grinder, typically an immigrant but after the war sometimes a wounded veteran, revealing something of social change?  Is there a relationship between veterans with wounds in a “disgraceful bondage”  And finally, what is a woman’s peace after the woman’s war?  Is it as Thomas Nast imagined – the women’s kingdom at home? or perhaps Eastman Johnson’s “Mother and Child” captures the story?  What’s certain is that in Lily Martin Spencer’s “Home of the Red, White, and Blue,” women hold pride of patriotic place and the veterans are in the shade – whether that reflected the United States more broadly after the war is certainly a point of debate.


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