Civil War Paintings and the War Panorama

  • John Trafton


If the nineteenth century was dreaming of cinema, as it has so often been said, then its paintings are some of the most lucid expressions of this dream. The Civil War paintings anticipated war cinema in many striking ways, notably in their ability to provide the memory of the war with emotional context. On the one hand, if pathos formulas aim to create within the spectator an encounter with death and destruction that is outside their everyday consciousness, yet at the same time tap into familiar sensations, then we can see plenty of overlap between paintings, war photography, and soldier writings. Regardless of whether it was combat, camp life, or an altered home front that was being depicted, paintings reduced the overwhelming chaos and inhumanity of the bloody affair into an identifiable moral and political message, just as Timothy O’Sullivan’s “death harvest” photographs and Rhode Island soldier Elisha Hunt Rhodes’s war diary would do. Large-scale panorama paintings would place the viewer into the thick of battle, making it a navigable experience, drawing upon photographs and sketches of battlefields for inspiration. On the other hand, these paintings can also be seen as a rehearsal of the war film independent of photography and epistolary traditions. The panorama paintings, for example, anticipated the role of telemetry and surveillance in future combat scenarios, providing a field of vision that has been replicated in many war films (and challenged in many others), as we will see in the following chapter.


Moral Outrage Historical Memory American Landscape Moral Message Sketch Illustration 
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  1. 10.
    For further reading, see Peter C. Merril, “What Happened to the Panorama Painters,” in German-American Painters in Wisconsin. Duestch-Amerikanische Studien Series (Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1997).Google Scholar

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  • John Trafton

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