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‘Hilary Harkness: Prisoners From the Front’ Review: A Retouched Portrait of the Civil War

New York

Alternate histories of the Civil War are much in vogue recently, from the laudable (Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning “The Underground Railroad”) to the ill-advised (HBO’s shelved “Confederate”) to the downright weird (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”). But few are as memorable as Hilary Harkness’s “Arabella Freeman Series,” the centerpiece of the painter’s show at PPOW. Part of “Prisoners From the Front,” the 52-year-old artist’s first solo exhibition in over a decade and the largest monographic presentation of her work to date, the narrative cycle is a triumph of emotional storytelling, art-historical fluency and technical mastery. 

The 10 paintings in the series here tell the story of the Freemans, a black, landowning Virginia family, and their dramatic experiences right before, during and after the Civil War—twins separated at birth; scheming neighbors out for their fortune; enlistment, battle and loss; a surprising love triangle that transforms into a love square and eventually a love pentagon. The dramatis personae are introduced in “Before” (2021), set in 1861, and an accompanying exhibition guide helps identify the characters who will pop up throughout the series. There’s the begowned Arabella, heir to the family legacy; Justine, close friend and midwife to the Freemans and Arabella’s love interest; Charles, the strapping and romantic brother of Arabella who in reality shares Justine’s blood; the Beaumont men, troublemakers with their eyes on the Freeman land. 

At 24 by 36 inches, it’s the largest piece in a show whose works are small in scale but outsize in their impact. Ms. Harkness’s impeccably rendered scenes (arranged chronologically according to her story) could easily be shown alongside other more contemporaneous depictions of the period—think Eastman Johnson, George Cochran Lambdin and Albert Bierstadt—without looking out of place. One can almost hear Shelby Foote narrating the story as “Ashokan Farewell” plays in the background. But as we more closely inspect them, the incongruities that confound our expectations lend the works a fantastical quality. Here, the antebellum beauty is black; a dark-skinned woman in a Union uniform sits proudly on a horse; a general—also a woman disguised to fight for the abolitionist cause—gives birth on the battlefield.  

But it’s more than the upending of historical norms—racial, sexual—and Ms. Harkness’s fine-tuned skills as a painter that hold our interest. In these highly detailed compositions, she asks us not only to search for narrative clues—ships and a mermaid on a mausoleum hint at the interred family’s roots in the whaling industry, for example—but also art-historical allusions. In “Sharpshooter” (2023), a Confederate marksman hits Justine in the thigh while another perches on a branch in a scene recalling Winslow Homer’s familiar etching for Harper’s Weekly. In “Forest Cemetery” (2021), Justine has succumbed to the injury, her carefully arranged body recalling Renaissance images of the dead Christ. The natural backdrops for several of these tableaux, from light-dappled forests to trickling streams, were drawn from 19th-century Russian painters Ivan Shishkin and Isaak Levitan, both part of the Peredvizhniki movement that rejected academic mores as too restrictive. An apt place to look for inspiration as Ms. Harkness pushes beyond all sorts of constraints in her work. 

The final painting in this section, “Prisoners From the Front (1866)” (2019), was also the first Ms. Harkness produced in the series. It’s a largely faithful copy of Homer’s work of the same name—attentive viewers might have recognized the military commander and one of the Beaumont boys as characters drawn from the painting. But the race of one of the soldiers has been changed from the original; now we see Charles standing beside the surrendered grays. The subtitle of the work, “Commissioned by Arabella Freeman,” extends this rich narrative even further, inserting her and her clan into the annals of art history as the imagined source of one of the most famous Civil War artworks of all time. 

Another room at PPOW contains a selection of earlier pieces that reimagine the story of Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas, peeking into their Paris abode, glimpsing their friends and artistic relations. These paintings are packed with the work of their creative interlocutors—Picasso’s famed portrait of the poet peers over her own shoulder and Gauguin’s Tahitian women step out of their frame to give Josephine Baker a massage. Also here is a painting that restages Jackson Pollock’s inaugural exhibition at the collector and curator Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery, shifting our attention to Guggenheim and Lee Krasner, Pollock’s oft-overlooked artist wife. While these are also skillfully executed and richly allusive, they pale compared with the gripping “Freeman Series” that came after them. That project proves that Ms. Harkness is one of the most imaginative painters working right now. Rewriting history has never looked so good. 

Hilary Harkness: Prisoners From the Front

PPOW, through Nov. 11