GW Libraries: Exhibits


Search using this query type:

Advanced Search (Items only)

Introduction Page 2

Herman Melville and Walt Whitman both hold a place in the canon of American literature.  Their works greatly inspired artists then and now, and at times in between.  Their subjects were not always directly about the great Civil War, but the upheaval of their subject matter and their writing style have been associated with the national dis-ease which tore apart the nation and turned “brother against brother.” 

This concept is also explored in the exhibition The Civil War and American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), running November 16, 2012 – April 28, 2013.  Visual artists, such as Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford, depict scenes of soldiers at camp and snipers taking aim, but they also depict genre scenes of runaway and former slaves, dark storm clouds approaching, and ships stuck in ice.  Altogether these images are to be taken as a “portrait of war,” just as Moby Dick and Whitman’s poetry also depict this concept—an upheaval that grips an entire populace. 

The works of both Melville and Whitman have inspired visual artists since their creation.  Two artists who have found inspiration in their words are Matt Kish and Douglas Paisley who have both created contemporary visual pieces based on the works of Herman Melville, Moby Dick and The Confidence-Man, respectively.  “[Robert Henri and his friends] were particularly drawn to Whitman’s democratic individualism, the expansiveness of his urban sensibility, and his emphasis on matters of personal and national identity.”[1]  It has been speculated that Marsden Hartley’s decision to change his name from Edmund to Marsden was influenced by Whitman.  “At it’s most basic, Whitman’s poetry is about identity, the self, and self’s relation to the universe.  Part of the process of mastering the elements of the universe is the ability to name them, a process at the heart of Whitman’s catalogues.  Just as important is the ability to name oneself.”[2] 

Abstract Expressionists such as Robert Motherwell, Paul Jenkins, William Baziotes, Seymour Lipton, and Theodore Roszak may have responded to the underlying feelings of uneasiness in Moby Dick, mirroring those felt during the years of WWII, when completing their works based on the novel and its characters.  These feelings also draw a connection between 20th century artists and those of the 19th century whose depictions of volcanoes and violent storms were also symbols of upheaval.  “The violence and brutality [Robert Motherwell and other abstract expressionists] perceived in both the war and the novel is apparent in the menacing and explosive forms and colors of their Moby Dick paintings and sculptures.  Its frightening legacy of moral uncertainty—its revelation of what Melville saw as ‘the heartless voids and immensities of the universe’—many of these artists sought to objectify visibly, even as Ahab visibly personified evil in Moby Dick.”[3]


[1]Ruth L. Bohan, Looking Into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850-1920 (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 192.

[2] Bohan, Looking Into Walt Whitman, 149.

[3] Elizabeth A. Schultz, “Abstract Expressionist Paintings and Sculptures of Moby Dick” in Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art, ed. Elizabeth A. Schultz (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 130.

Introduction Page 2