Frederic Church Puts Finishing Touches on His Painting Aurora Borealis, Full of Apocalyptic Portent
Art historian and curator of American Art at the Smithsonian Eleanor Jones Harvey writes that before and during the Civil War “chief among the [celestial] phenomena invoking apocalypse and days of judgment was the Aurora Borealis, eerie, silent flickerings of lurid light that rippled across the sky like a nocturnal rainbow. They conjured images of nature out of control, appearing and disappearing without warning.”
The eminent painter Frederic Church gave sketching lessons to the prominent arctic explorer Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes before Hayes left on his arctic expedition in 1860. Harvey explains that the sketches and stories Hayes brought back with him in 1861, after having wintered over his ship, the SS United States, trapped in the Arctic pack ice, served in large part as the basis for Church’s arctic landscape Aurora Borealis, painted in 1864 and early 1865.
Harvey describes the painting: “Under a dark Arctic sky, an explorer’s ship lies frozen in the pack ice at the base of a looming cliff. Lights inside the diminutive vessel signal a human presence, and the tiny dogsled making its way toward the ship encourages thoughts of rescue from an icy tomb. Overhead the heavens erupt in a cascade of eerie lights ranging from red to greenish-yellow. Church captured the implied motion of the electric luminescence arcing across the sky. As the ice grips the SS United States, and by proxy the nation, the auroras snake across the Arctic winter sky like a grim warning from God, a bleak foreshadowing of doom. . . . Artist and explorer present the Arctic as the antipode of Eden, the inverse of paradise, an unearthly landscape that functions as an inversion of the landscapes that made Church’s reputation.
“. . . By the time Church painted Aurora Borealis, [Harvey continued,] the nation had witnessed several unusual displays of this phenomenon. In 1859 and 1860, Church had seen the auroras himself on several occasions . . . . But the spectacle that captured the American imagination occurred after his return to New York, between August 24 and September 4, 1859, when auroras were visible from Cuba to Canada. It was highly unusual to see the auroras so far south, reinforcing many Americans’ belief that God had cast these unearthly lights over every part of the United States to make a point. . . . [T]his auroral display must have seemed to augur if not the end of the world, at least the end of its stability and predictability.
“In 1863 a massive and colorful aurora again rippled over New York City. Its appearance fed the apocalyptic mood during the war and prompted the New York Illustrated News to publish a poem titled “Aurora Borealis” in which the imagery invokes war, volcanic eruptions, and the auroras with biblical overtones. . . . Using imagery from the book of Revelation — the plague of fire, God’s avenging Angel with a flaming sword barring entry to Paradise — the poet foreshadows the fall of the mortal world; and this world is no place of grace. By this time it was difficult to find a description of an aurora that did not link it in some way with the war. . . . As Church turned to paint his own vision of the auroras, he seemed to have a similarly apocalyptic framework in mind.”
– Submitted by Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Peter A. Gilbert
The Civil War and American Art, Eleanor Jones Harvey, Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Yale University Press, pp. 54-57.