Aurora Borealis by Frederick Church - Perspectives from The Artist's Road

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Aurora Borealis

Frederick Edwin Church

Perspectives from The Artist's Road

Aurora Borealis, 1865, Frederic Edwin Church
Aurora Borealis     1865      Frederick Edwin Church

   Continuing our discussion on the Northern Lights and other light phenomena, we found this image painted by Frederick Church of the Aurora Borealis in 1865. The story behind the painting is as interesting as the painting is exceptional. 

   Church's pupil, Isaac Israel Hayes, was also an intrepid explorer. Hayes witnessed the Northern Lights while on a polar expedition in 1861, with his ship locked in the ice. He sketched the extraordinary light effects and, upon return to New York, passed his sketch and description along to Church. From them, Church created this oil painting.

   As this was the time of the Civil War, the auroras, seen only in the far north, were seen as signs of God's disapproval of the Confederacy and its support for slavery. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (which houses the painting) writes:  "Viewers understood that Church's painting of the Aurora Borealis alluded to this divine omen relating to the unresolved conflict."

   Explorer Isaac Hayes wrote of witnessing the event:  "The light grew by degrees more and more intense, and from irregular bursts it settled into an almost steady sheet of brightness . . . The exhibition, at first tame and quiet, became in the end startling in its brilliancy. The broad dome above me is all ablaze . . . The colour of the light was chiefly red, but this was not constant, and every hue mingled in the fierce display. Blue and yellow streamers were playing in the lurid fire; and, sometimes starting side by side from the wide expanse of the illuminated arch, they melt into each other, and throw a ghostly glare of green into the face and over the landscape. Again this green overrides the red; blue and orange clasp each other in their rapid flight; violet darts tear through a broad flush of yellow, and countless tongues of white flame, formed of these uniting streams, rush aloft and lick the skies."

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