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Opinion

March 23, 2013

Shribman: Where portraits tell the story

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In this 150th anniversary season you can explore the Civil War by reading narratives, memoirs and letters. You can examine historians’ visions and scholars’ revisions. You can delve into the great speeches of the era, especially those of Abraham Lincoln. But perhaps the best, and most unexpected, thing you can do is to walk into the National Portrait Gallery and be stirred by the portraits, posters, prints and handbills on its venerable walls.

The Civil War was a photographed war, the first major conflict to be recorded by camera. These pictures, especially those by Mathew Brady, are riveting and realistic. But the camera was the Twitter of the time: flashy, relatively new, full of promise, attended by overly excited early adapters. (No matter that the most moving photographs of the war were battlefield pictures, many of them staged, with bodies moved for effect.)

The old, reliable medium in the middle of the 19th century was the painting: familiar, true, centuries-old, steeped in tradition, a craft with its own conventions and a time-honored apprentice structure. Though agitated by new movements, rife with rebellion, upended by realism, it remained old-fashioned even then, in a time we now consider old-fashioned.

And so, amid all of the fancy new multimedia presentations about the war that redefined the country and redeemed its founders’ idealism, we might pause before a few old paintings that speak to us still, a century and a half later. Perhaps that’s because we feel the poetic intervention of the painter in these Civil War portraits, leading us to sense that our experience is shaped by someone thinking about the subject in a way less obvious to us than when we view a photograph.

It is, of course, false to say that photographs involve less human intention and intervention than paintings do, but we are conditioned, often wrongly, to think that they are records as opposed to interpretations. As George T.M. Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, put it: “We look at a painting of Lincoln in a way we read a poem about Lincoln by Walt Whitman.”

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