The lone Union sentry stands atop Federal Hill, outlined against an ominous orange/red sky. In the distance, the tops of the Washington Monument and several spires rise above the city, as straight and determined as the rifle held in the soldier's left arm.
"Fort Federal Hill at Sunset, Baltimore, 1862," by Sanford Robinson Gifford, seems to speak volumes about the wrenching chapter in our history, a Civil War that, in so many ways, has never really been settled.
The Gifford work is among 57 paintings and 18 photographs in an absorbing and revelatory exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "The Civil War and American Art." Its one of various cultural presentations going on in the region to commemorate the conflict.
This week, Arena Stage will give the world premiere of Tazewell Thompson's "Mary T. and Lizzy K," a play about the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and the freed slave Elizabeth Keckly, who became one of the finest dressmakers of the day.
Another world premiere, this one musical, is due next month at Gettysburg College — Avner Dorman's "Letters from Gettysburg," for baritone, chorus and percussion ensemble. It's provides a prelude to the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg this summer.
Much more arts activity will materialize over the next few years as a result of the National Civil War Project, a huge, multi-city enterprise aimed at spurring new music, dance, theater and dialogue about the war and its lingering legacy.
Center Stage, Arena Stage and the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center are key local participants in this project, which was inspired by Baltimore-based choreographer Liz Lerman. She is creating a theater/dance fusion called "Healing Wars," dealing with physical and mental battle wounds, slated to be unveiled in 2014.
"We are still struggling with the issues of the Civil War," Center Stage associate artistic director Gavin Witt says. "Some of the language of the Civil War is even back in vogue, with talk in Texas of secession."
The war's 150th anniversary, which started being observed last year and will continue through 2015, provides an extra impetus to reconsider every angle of this painful history.
The recent Stephen Spielberg movie "Lincoln" awakened fresh interest in the politics of it, as well as in individuals who had been more in the shadows, such as Keckly. (The timing of the "Mary T. and Lizzy K." premiere is coincidental; it was commissioned by Arena several years ago.)
And nearly every day brings a reminder that Americans remain divided over many of the things that tore at the nation in the 1860s.
"The reality is we're still fighting states rights versus federal rights," Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith said. "We're still fighting over rights, period — civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, now gun rights. Election rights were just discussed at the Supreme Court. The National Civil War Project is an opportunity for us to look back in order to look forward. And art is really one of the most beautiful vehicles for investigating the past."
Also involved in the project are George Washington University; the Alliance Theatre and Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts at Emory University in Atlanta; and the American Repertory Theater and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
With institutions from the North and the South, the project is "a confederacy of very different entities," Witt says, "but not in conflict. We are acting in concert to examine a common topic."
Pieces already in the pipeline include the local premiere of a bittersweet music-theater work by Paula Vogel called "Civil War Christmas" due at Center Stage in November. The company is also seeking out a British playwright (to be named) to create a work that looks at the war from the British perspective of the era.
While awaiting these and many other products of the National Civil War Project, the exhibit at the American Art Museum offers the equivalent of a searing, epic play or intense symphony. Although there are many familiar works here, they have not been seen together in such a gripping context.
Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the museum, breaks new ground here by shining a light on the way artists in this country were profoundly affected by the war, from the build-up to Reconstruction.
The show, which travels to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in May, includes a striking emphasis on members of the Hudson Valley School of mid-19th century American landscape painters — men like Gifford, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church.
They were famed for depicting the country as a paradise. "But if we were the New Eden, then Cain killed Abel at the First Battle of Manassas," Harvey said.
The curator set out to demonstrate how artists reflected the cruel ways the war changed perceptions.
"Historians have done a fabulous job footnoting every corner of the Civil War," she says. "But if you look at the index of books about the Hudson Valley School, there might be one entry for 'Civil War.' And when you look up the passage, it's not much more than: 'There was a Civil War.' Look what 9/11 — one day — did to this country. How could there be four years of Civil War and no scars?"
Just how scarred artists were by the upheaval can be seen and felt at every turn in the exhibition galleries. Winslow Homer's haunted and haunting paintings seem doubly vibrant here — a soldier mourning at a comrade's grave; a veteran wielding a scythe in a wheat field (suggesting the reaper in battlefields, or a survivor determined to build a new, better land).
There are no caricatures in the exhibit, but real people, Northern and Southern, black and white. Eastman Johnson's "Negro Life at the South" is a bittersweet study in class and skin color; his painting of a black man reading the Bible, bathed in gentle light, has a profound beauty. Johnson's "A Ride to Liberty," showing two nervous adults and two children sharing a horse and fleeing an unseen threat, communicates richly.
Winslow Homer's 1876 painting, "A Visit from the Old Mistress," coolly shows how not much changed between whites and blacks a decade after the brutal war.
There are several powerful pre-war paintings that reveal the temper of the times in vivid ways that many viewers might not have noticed when encountering the works in other contexts.
Church's "Meteor of 1860" doesn't just document a much-discussed natural phenomenon, but becomes an omen. Martin Johnson Heade's "Approaching Thunder Storm" from 1859 — a placid lake below a turgid and lightning-filled sky — becomes an unmistakable metaphor (the painting was purchased by an abolitionist).
"People didn't look at that in 1859 and just say, 'Wow, what a cool thunderstorm picture.' They understood," Harvey said. "You can't go three paragraphs into a speech or sermon from those days that that doesn't evoke weather or terrain. Lincoln talked about the coming storm. This art is a way of understanding, if you will, the barometric pressure of the mood of the country."
That mood seems very clear in an 1861 painting by Gifford, "Twilight in the Catskills." This in no battle scene, but the sight of fire-damaged trees and a blood-red sky delivers a pointed message.
Gifford's eye-grabbing scene of Federal Hill likewise conveys much more than the surface detail.
"There's something queasy about that sky," Harvey says "Some people thought it a lurid twilight when the painting was first shown. It is almost like Baltimore is on fire. The sentry looks like he is in a staccato line with all those church steeples. It may be a traditional scene, but it is not a traditional story."
The stories told through each of the works in the exhibit are deeply layered. This is especially true of landscapes.
In such works as "Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, July 1863," Gifford beautifully captures the everyday, non-combat lives of troops, seen against a once-untroubled countryside (the artist served in the war briefly).
And, in Gifford's great nature painting "A Coming Storm" from 1863 — reportedly owned by Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln's assassin — the full weight of the war seems palpable in the clouds.
Add in the show's chilling examples of what Harvey describes as the "visceral brutality of post-battle photography,"and "The Civil War and American Art" becomes all the more illuminating. The exhibit, like the National Civil War Project that will soon add to the discussion, helps to underscore what Lincoln said in 1861:
"The struggle of today is not altogether for today — it is for a vast future also."
Civil War Sampler
• "The Civil War and American Art" runs through April 28 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Streets, N.W., Washington. Free admission. 202-633-7970, americanart.si.edu
• "Bound for Freedom's Light: African Americans and the Civil War," an intimate and fascinating collection of photos of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas and others; newspaper articles and illustrations; etc. Through March 2, 2014, at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets, N.W., Washington. Free admission. 202-633-8300, npg.si.edu.
• "Mary T. and Lizzy K." by Tazewell Thompson runs through April 28 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington. 202-488-3300, arenastage.org.
• "Torn Asunder: The Civil War Midstream," a theatrical presentation in collaboration with Baltimore School for the Arts, Maryland Historical Society and National Park Service. 2 p.m. April 27 at Hampton National Historic Site, 535 Hampton Lane, Towson; 6 p.m. May 3 at Maryland Historical Society, 201 West Monument St. 410-685-3750, mdhs.org.
• "For Love or Money: Art, Commerce and Stephen Crane," an exhibit that includes various editions of "Red Badge of Courage" and other Civil War stories. Through June 14 at the George Peabody Library, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. Free.
• "Letters from Gettysburg," by Avner Dorman, a composition based on letters written by 1st Lieutenant Rush P. Cady of the 97th New York Infantry and a letter written by his mother, will be premiered at 8 p.m. April 13 at Christ Chapel, Gettysburg College. $5 at the door. gettysburg.edu.