Picturing the Civil War: visual culture of the rank and file

Brookes, James (2020) Picturing the Civil War: visual culture of the rank and file. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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The American Civil War revolutionised visual culture. From 1861 to 1865, soldiers seized upon pictures as new forms of self-expression. Yet, engagement with war imagery presented both an opportunity and a dilemma. At the outset of the conflict, conventional modes of the pictorial representation of conflict were orientated towards a romantic image of war as a heroic cause. Such conventions remained powerful, but over the conflict’s course, some soldiers began to abandon these conventions, and sought new ways of representing the experience of war; others, meanwhile, continued to fortify older traditions. As soldiers faced their foes in battle, they entered a cultural contest over the war’s representation with professional picture-makers and their own comrades.

“Picturing the Civil War: Visual Culture of the Rank and File” is the first comprehensive study of Civil War soldiers’ wartime art. It charts how soldiers used visual culture, even as the war transformed visual technologies and as imagery transformed the public’s experience of the

war itself. Using new archival material from the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Atlanta History Center, amongst others, we can see how soldiers visualised war compared to its popular representation. This thesis blends textual and visual records to elevate soldier art from products of the war, to emphatic statements about it. Putting soldier studies into conversation with visual and material culture histories illuminates how those who deemed themselves best-poised to comprehend the war experience did so in response to their lived realities.

Each chapter demonstrates how different visual forms (print imagery, portrait photography, and drawn and painted pictures) inspired a clash between the ideal and the real in American war culture. They illustrate themes in Civil War history that are essential to an understanding of this contest. As modernisation characterised much of the war, it also shaped visual culture. Popular culture seized upon rapid image production whilst soldiers countered it by employing traditional forms and by focusing newer technologies on themselves. Visions of nationhood were tested, revealing that soldiers’ views could be distinct from societal expectations. Death abounded and troops responded with self-representation. In these contexts, gender and identity became key to the shaping of soldiers’ visual culture. As the war tested American masculinities, soldiers reformulated them in their pictures. This project reveals the nuanced nature of wartime imagery and asks: how did soldiers use visual culture to picture the realisation that idealised expectations about conflict rarely gelled with the realities of civil war?

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Vandome, Robin
Trodd, Zoe
Keywords: Visual culture; War in art; American Civil War in art; Solider's art
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General). For photography, see TR
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of American and Canadian Studies
Item ID: 59628
Depositing User: Brookes, James
Date Deposited: 02 Mar 2021 08:34
Last Modified: 02 Mar 2021 08:45
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/59628

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