Aurora Borealis

  • Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Eleanor Blodgett, 1911.4.1

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

Publication Label

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.

Aurora Borealis
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
  • Waterscape – boat
  • Landscape – phenomenon – aurora
  • Landscape – weather – snow
  • Waterscape – coast
  • Waterscape – sea
Object Number
Research Notes
Linked Open Data
Linked Open Data URI

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oil on canvas

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