The Civil War and American Art: Cotopaxi, America’s “Moral Compass”

Jeff on December 4, 2012

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Fund, Merrill Fund, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund, and Richard A. Manoogian Fund. The Bridgeman Art Library

This blog post is part of a monthly Eye Level feature on our exhibition The Civil War and American Art. Curator Eleanor Harvey talks about many of the important intersections between American art and the Civil War. The exhibition runs through April 28, 2013.

American landscape painters rarely depicted Civil War battlefields, yet they often used weather and terrain to convey the war's emotional tenor. By 1862 the nation was locked in a bloody Civil War with no end in sight. Journalists, preachers, poets, and soldiers wrote about extreme weather and violent natural events to describe a world that was coming apart at the seams. Volcanoes had become a popular metaphor to symbolize the war's destructive force. During 1862 Frederic Church worked on his monumental image of Cotopaxi. In this painting the cinder cone of the erupting volcano dominates a panoramic sweep of the Andean plateau. The smoke and ash rolling from the caldera drift down the side of the mountain, nearly obliterating the surrounding landscape.

Blog Image 206 - The Civil War and American Art: Cotopaxi, America's "Moral Compass"
Frederick Douglass, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Although Cotopaxi is not a painting specifically about the Civil War, it is a landscape suffused with it. The critics of the day recognized the signs. In the American press, volcanoes were variously described in terms of bombs or heavy artillery, the ash clouds reminiscent of cannon smoke drifting across the battlefield. In a review of Church's painting the New York Tribune described volcanoes as "pillars of warning rather than of guidance." A reviewer writing for the Albion described the ash-laden sky as "the war-clouds, rolling dun" that eclipsed the light. The line comes from a poem written in 1803 by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell called "Hohenlinden," about a bloody battle fought near Munich in 1800 during the French Revolutionary wars. Campbell's volcanic imagery mirrors that of Church's canvas, the super-heated palette of reds and oranges conflating sunlit water with molten lava, and rivers with blood. Like the impenetrable, sulfurous smoke from the cannons that often rendered opponents unable to see each other, Church's ash cloud descending the Andean slopes threatens to blot out the sun.

During the Civil War, volcanoes were widely invoked as harbingers of societal upheavals. Frederick Douglass (1818—1895) (image) delivered an address in June 1861 titled "The American Apocalypse." He affirmed, "Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on the earth, the smoke and stench of whose torments ascend upward forever." Race slavery was North America's volcano, a simmering force waiting to erupt explosively. It was a potent image that was often repeated in sermons and in the press across the North. A little over a year later, as Church completed Cotopaxi, the "moral volcano" of slavery became the central, burning issue of the war itself with Lincoln's announcement of the provisional Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Accordingly, all slaves in the Confederacy were legally free as of January 1, 1863. By that time the American Eden had already been destroyed by Civil War, setting the stage for a political and spiritual transformation that could reshape the nation, much as Church's volcano would reshape the landscape.