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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010

Stories of War and Reconciliation, 1860–1877

The unique and overwhelming circumstances of the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction challenged American artists. The confluence of charged political and economic events as well as profound social change created such turmoil that many artists chose to examine only small, reassuring slices of the human experience in subtle, open-ended narratives. Seeking to assuage the sorrow of the war and to heal the nation's fractured spirit, painters turned away from military and political content. Even Winslow Homer, who visited the Union lines, preferred to recount the war's everyday aspects, not its bloody battles. Artists depicted women grappling with the new roles and responsibilities left to them after the loss of so many man in combat. Expressing a longing for prewar innocence and the commemorative atmosphere associated with the nation's Centennial, many painters portrayed children. As the agrarian basis of American life yielded to urbanization and industrialization, artists who lived, studied, worked, and exhibited their paintings in cities looked to the countryside for subject matter. Painters of this era were likely to show rural locales, including seaside resorts, as temporary or nostalgic retreats from urban existence rather than sustainable habitats.