Now Open—Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872

Abraham Lincoln | by Alexander Gardner | Albumen silver print, 1865 | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

From the desolate battlefields of Antietam to the sweeping landscapes of the American West, Alexander Gardner played a crucial role in the transformation of American culture, injecting realism into the medium of photography. The Portrait Gallery’s latest exhibition, “Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859–1872,” focuses on images by the man considered America’s first modern photographer.

The show, featuring more than 140 photographs, is one of the largest in the Portrait Gallery’s history. Among these images is the rarely exhibited “cracked-plate” portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a photograph that is arguably the most iconic image of the president. Other highlights include chilling images of post-conflict battlefields that can be experienced via stereoscope; one of Gardner’s only two surviving glass-plate negatives; and traditional portraits of prominent statesmen, generals and private citizens.

Also in the exhibition are Gardner’s landscapes of the American West, which document the course of American expansion as settlers moved westward after the Civil War. Gardner’s landscapes feature almost limitless horizons, giving a sense of the emptiness of western space. These are contrasted with his detailed portraits of Indian chiefs and tribal delegations.

“Dark Fields” was curated by senior historian David C. Ward and guest curator Heather Shannon, former photo archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian, with research assistance from Sarah Campbell. The exhibition is the finale of the Portrait Gallery’s seven-part series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The show opens today and will remain on view through March 13, 2016.


“Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859–1872,” is funded by members of the exhibition’s leadership committee. The co-chairs for this philanthropic committee are gratefully acknowledged: The Abraham and Virginia Weiss Charitable Trust, Amy and Marc Meadows, in honor of Wendy Wick Reaves; The Stoneridge Fund of Amy and Marc Meadows; The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation; Peter and Rhondda Grant; Kate Kelly and George Schweitzer; and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Uhler.