Piri Halasz reviews the exhibition The Civil War and American Art at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on view through September 2, 2013.
Halasz writes: "I glanced at the label of the [Martin Johnson] Heade – and that was the beginning of my undoing, because the label was all about how this picture was an allusion to the coming Civil War. This seemed quite a stretch, despite the label’s further efforts to tie picture & Civil War together by saying that Lincoln was 'reported' to have spoken of 'the storm coming' in relation to slavery, that abolitionist clergymen had adopted the metaphor in their sermons, and that one of them had owned this painting." Halasz continues: "I suddenly realized that the entire show was going to be study in illustration, with paintings of every conceivable subject dragooned into the service of Telling a Story. Somehow that also made clear to me that all or most of these paintings would be wrapped in a faint, silent veil of sticky sentimentality—as a rule, not inherent in the paintings, but instilled there by their labels and the general awareness that they had been chosen because they were – or could be made to look like–Message Painting."