DePaul professors help bring the Civil War to life
May 15, 2012
DePaul faculty experts in history and art history have joined forces to curate a website exhibiting Civil War-era art drawn from Chicago museum collections.
The website, The Civil War in Art, was established to mark the Civil War’s 150th anniversary and provide a resource for teachers.
The Terra Foundation, one of the most generous sponsors of American artwork, enlisted Associate Professor Margaret Storey from the history department and Associate Professor Mark Pohlad from the history of art and architecture department to create cohesion among the many collections the website features.
“The idea behind the site was that lots of people or institutions from around Chicago would donate art, including the Art Institute, the Newberry Library, the DuSable Museum, the Chicago Public Library, the Park District and the Chicago History Museum,” Pohlad says. “Our job was to organize and editorialize these works of art.
“We were also there to make it all feel like one coherent collection,” Storey adds. “Each of these contributors would send text about their items. Some were only interested in the pieces as art and some were more interested in history. We had to bring the two worlds together.”
The site contains a stunning array of works from the pre-war era, the Civil War era and post-war pieces dating into the mid-20th century. The art provides new insights into the impact the war had on the national psyche. Each piece has been scanned in detail, allowing up-close looks at rare works.
“The site allows teachers and their classes to see things that are not usually available because many of these items are not in a holding library or museum,” Pohlad says. “It’s a virtual world where students can make a more intimate connection with the art.”
In addition, the site provides lesson plans secondary teachers can use to teach social studies through the arts.
Though Chicago rose to its greatest heights after the Civil War, the city has many connections to it, Storey says.
“The people who built Chicago after the fire lived through this war,” she says. “They collected the art and built the monuments throughout the city for a reason—because the war was so cataclysmic for the union and because it was so meaningful to the country that came out of it. Chicago played an enormous role in that war, and people who lived here talked and thought about it a lot. It impacted their culture in ways we really don’t understand when we drive by Grant’s monument on Lake Shore Drive.”
Artwork of note
Storey and Pohlad singled out several pieces of note in the collections, including an image of an African-American soldier carved into a whale’s tooth, a children’s game where players act out scenes of secession and illustrations of war images by famed artist Winslow Homer.
“Winslow Homer’s ‘A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty’ is my favorite,” Storey says. “Homer was known for candidly portraying the front at home. Sharpshooters were morally ambiguous figures. They were prized as experts who were valuable for both armies, but because they picked people off, they collapsed the fiction that war wasn’t murder. People felt uncomfortable with that. Homer’s drawing is so active and conveys the predatory nature and the fine skill of this person.”
“My favorite is a tiny statue of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French, whose best-known work is the sculpture of a seated Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.,” Pohlad says. “It’s a very quiet piece, but it’s also quite powerful.”
As important as the website was, the project served as an important opportunity for two DePaul departments to come together.
“It’s wonderful to break down these silos,” Pohlad says. “It’s natural for art and history to be together.”
“It’s an interesting and unique site in that it tries to present both artwork and historical work,” Storey adds. “That’s what made it very challenging to do, but also what made it special.”