History and Theory 41 (4):17–42 (2002)
The Civil War generated hundreds of history paintings. Yet, as this essay argues, painters failed to create any iconic, lasting images of the Civil War using the conventions of grand manner history painting, despite the expectations of many that they would and should. This essay first examines the terms by which I am evaluating this failure, then moves on to a consideration of the American history painting tradition. I next examine several history paintings of Civil War scenes in light of this tradition and argue that their “failure” to capture the meaning and essence of the war resulted from a breakdown of the narrative conventions of history painting. Finally, I glance briefly at Winslow Homer’s Civil War scenes, arguably the only ones which have become canonical, and suggest that the success of these images comes from their abandonment of old conventions and the invention of new ones
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