Credit: Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Symbolism of the Northern Dawn
Frederic Edwin Church’s oil painting of the northern lights may actually allude to the Civil War. Symbols are subjective, especially when it comes to the meaning of art. A casual onlooker might see this painting and wonder about the northern lights, the polar landscape, and the efforts it took for explorers to reach these bounds. But the exhibition label says:
The ship and sled team in this image belonged to Frederic Church’s friend, polar explorer Dr. Isaac Hayes. Hayes had led an Arctic expedition in 1860, and gave his sketches from the trip to the artist as inspiration for this painting. Hayes returned from his voyage to find the country in the thick of the Civil War, and in a rousing speech vowed that “God willing, I trust yet to carry the flag of the great Republic, with not a single star erased from its glorious Union, to the extreme northern limits of the earth.” Viewers understood Church’s painting of the Aurora Borealis (also known as the northern lights) as a portent of disaster, a divine omen relating to the conflict.
One of Smithsonian American Art Museum’s researchers did some sleuthing and found that the Aurora is associated with war and death. Here’s an excerpt from her research notes:
I went to the Dibner Library of Science and Technology at the National Museum of American History to look at a 1733 edition of Mairan’s treatise. One engraving illustrating Mairan’s treatise depicts a dark arc rising above the horizon with auroral rays streaming towards the sky’s zenith, and thus closely resembles the aurora in Church’s painting. By the nineteenth century, numerous scientific expeditions yielded new information and J. Unterweger and E. Edlund connected the phenomenon to solar electricity. Despite the investigations of scientists, the aurora still evoked superstition as a portent of war and disaster; this association was reinforced by its appearance above the northern part of the United States in December 1864 and above Paris in October 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.