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Aurora Borealis

1865 Frederic Edwin Church Born: Hartford, Connecticut 1826 Died: New York, New York 1900 oil on canvas 56 x 83 1/2 in. (142.3 x 212.2 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of Eleanor Blodgett 1911.4.1 Smithsonian American Art Museum
2nd Floor, East Wing

Exhibition Label

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.

Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006

Artwork Description

The Civil War defined America and forever changed American art. American artists of this era could not depict the conflict using the conventions of European history painting, which glamorized the hero on the battlefield. Instead, America's finest painters captured the transformative impact of the war. Through landscapes and genre paintings, these artists gave voice to the nation's highest ideals and deepest concerns — illustrating a time that has been described as the second American Revolution.

Smithsonian American Art Museum: Commemorative Guide. Nashville, TN: Beckon Books, 2015.

Research Notes

Read research notes for Aurora Borealis. (pdf)


Landscape - phenomenon - aurora

Landscape - weather - snow

Waterscape - boat

Waterscape - coast

Waterscape - sea


paint - oil

fabric - canvas

About Frederic Edwin Church

Born: Hartford, Connecticut 1826 Died: New York, New York 1900

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Frederic Edwin Church

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