Picturing a More or Less Perfect Union: Painting Everyday Life, 1860–1880

Margaret Conrads, Nelson-Atkins Museum

Tuesday, November 8, 2011Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Post Office, ca. 1859-63, by David Gilmour Blythe

Post Office, ca. 1859-63, by David Gilmour Blythe, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA

Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), 1870, by Winslow Homer

Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), 1870, by Winslow Homer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

From the upheaval of the Civil War through the failure of Radical Reconstruction in 1877, American painters attempted to find meaning in the Civil War and its aftermath by recounting many different stories on canvas. Seeking to assuage the war’s sorrow and to heal the nation’s fractured spirit, American painters turned away from political content to depict everyday life. Although many of these stories connect to basic narratives central to the human experience, these stories in paint helped create a pastiche of memories — real and imagined — that continue to contribute to American society’s sense of self.

America recoiled from the harsh realities of Matthew Brady’s glass-plate journalism of the carnage of war. Painters disavowed the fragmented, journalistically accurate narrative that had become the American story. The new, peacetime stories can be seen in the art of Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson and Thomas Eakins as well as J.G. Brown, Seymour Guy, Thomas Le Clear and others. These stories depict women, after the loss of so many men in combat, exercising new societal responsibilities. Portrayals of children express nostalgia for prewar innocence.

Post-war paintings also depict the unifying spirit of the 1876 Centennial that commemorated a purposeful, common origin for all sections of America. The Colonial Revival took place in paint, as well as the decorative arts and historic preservation.

These post-war stories in paint celebrate America’s return to peaceful pursuits. As the agrarian basis of American life increasingly gave way to urbanization and industrialization, artists who worked and lived in thriving cities, nostalgically depicted the countryside to reflect their longing for earlier, simpler times. Their paintings also document the urban, middle-class fad for recreational pastimes.

Assisted by easier trans-Atlantic transportation and communication, artists studied abroad in ever-growing numbers; lived in European cities and art colonies; and adopted subjects and styles from academic to Impressionist to explore as expatriates or to accommodate to American situations upon their return home. As the nation set its sights on a more global outlook, its artists would do the same, embracing the training, aesthetics and pictorial content of Europe as they addressed themselves to stories of the next chapter in the American experience.

Margaret Conrads graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College. She earned a master’s degree from Washington University, followed by a doctorate from the City University of New York.

Dr. Conrads has been a curatorial assistant at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington; a gallery assistant for the Pace Gallery in New York City; research curator for the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York; and research fellow at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (Marc Simpson spoke to the Forum about “The Clark Brothers as Collectors of John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer” in June, 2007.) Dr. Conrads has been at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Missouri since 1987, rising to the position of curator of American art and interim director of education.

Dr. Conrads has written The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: American Paintings to 1945 (2007); Winslow Homer and the Critics: Forging a National Art in the 1870s (2001); and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (1990). She contributed “Stories of War and Reconciliation, 1860-1877” to American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 (2009).

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Nothing represents everyday life better than tools and utensils used in daily work. Share your ball peen hammer for silversmithing, woodworking tools or antique cooking pots and utensils. To see these objects in context, bring images of everyday, domestic life.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.