Ulysses S. Grant had just taken command of the Union army when — in March 1864 — he posed for photographer Mathew Brady.
Yet already — as seen in this evocative portrait at the Chrysler Museum of Art — the weight of conducting a bloody and seemingly endless war made the hope of the North look grim, preoccupied and tired.
Gazing into the camera only a week after his surrender at Appomattox, Lee's eyes are narrowed and his jaw set from the strain of leading the Army of Northern Virginia in an equally wearing struggle. Yet even in defeat he confronts the lens with a stare that's unbowed and formidable.
These legendary adversaries are just some of the subjects you can explore, however, in a modest but compelling album of images drawn from one of the nation's finest collections of Civil War photographs.
And in an exhibit called "The Civil War: Visual Perspectives, Then and Now," the Chrysler Museum has combined them with later paintings, photographs and prints to explore the conflict and its meaning in a rich and unusually thought-provoking fashion.
"We wanted to give people the chance to see some of the pivotal figures of the war. We wanted to show them some of the epic scenes it produced — and what went on in camp between the battles," Chrysler director William J. Hennessey says.
"We also wanted to show off our paintings of the ironclad Virginia — plus give our visitors a look at the contemporary world of Civil War re-enactors and the striking, almost aggressive work of African-American artist Kara Walker."
Civil War photographs have been a passion at the Chrysler since at least 1991, when former curator Brooks Johnson mounted a landmark exhibit showcasing the work of a then little-known photographer named Alexander Gardner.
Less than a decade later, Johnson acquired the holdings of David L. Hack, who had amassed more than 300 images into one of the country's finest private collections of Civil War photographs.
Several of the pictures here and in a second Chrysler exhibit — "Portraying a Nation: American Portrait Photography" — come from that cache, which was distinguished by both the rarity of its pictures and their unusual size and condition. Others have been taken from a remarkably pristine example of Gardner's 1866 milestone work "Photographic Sketch Book of the War."
Such choice images give visitors the chance to gaze as closely as is now humanly possible into the eyes of such figures as President Abraham Lincoln — whose likeness is the centerpiece of the "American Portrait" exhibit — and the Union general whose doggedness finally brought the war to an end.
"Look at that face," Hennessey says. "The guy is completely worn out."
Other photos, such as Timothy H. O'Sullivan's 1863 view of an enormous Union army wagon park at Brandy Station, capture the epic scale of the war, while iconic pictures such as Sullivan's "A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg" record its unprecedented horror.
Then there is the compelling artistry found in such arresting group portraits as "Father Thomas H. Mooney Preaching to the 69th New York Volunteers" and "Studying the Art of War, Fairfax Court-House."
"These were taken in the days before people thought of photography as the art of capturing the moment," Hennessey says.
"So they stopped, thought about how to arrange their subjects and then had the history of art in their minds as they did."
Numerous images of Civil War re-enactors work their own sort of magic, using the variable focus of pinhole cameras and the wide, wide view of panoramic cameras to give contemporary portraits and landscapes the look and feel of pictures from the distant past.
Equally resonant is the jarring way Walker overlays iconic examples of Harper's Weekly Civil War prints with inky silhouettes of African-Americans.
Chrysler Museum explores Civil War images
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