Under a dark Arctic sky, polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes’s ship, the SS United States, lies frozen in the pack ice at the base of a looming cliff. The auroras above erupt in a cascade of eerie lights, while the dogsled implies the hope of rescue from this icy prison. Hayes and Frederic Church were friends, and upon Hayes’s return from the Arctic in 1861, he gave Church his sketches as inspiration for this painting. When Hayes returned to New York, the country was in the thick of civil war and, in a rousing speech, he 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.”
During the Civil War, the auroras–usually visible only in the north—were widely interpreted as signs of God’s displeasure with the Confederacy for advocating slavery, and of the high moral stakes attached to a Union victory. Viewers understood that Church’s painting of the Aurora Borealis (also known as the northern lights) alluded to this divine omen relating to the unresolved conflict.
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.
- Not on view
- 56 x 83 1⁄2 in. (142.3 x 212.2 cm)
- Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Eleanor Blodgett
- Mediums Description
- oil on canvas
- Landscape – weather – snow
- Waterscape – boat
- Waterscape – sea
- Object Number
- Research Notes
- Linked Open Data
- Linked Open Data URI