Auroras Are Weird
Today, let’s take a look at one of the paintings in the museum’s 19th century landscape collection. Completed in 1865, Frederic Church’s “Aurora Borealis” depicts an 1860 Arctic expedition led by Dr. Isaac Hayes. No, not that Isaac Hayes. According to the exhibition label, Dr. Isaac Isreal Hayes, the explorer, and Frederic Church, the artist, ran in the same circles in New York in the 1850s. The boat in the foreground is the S.S. United States, which was on a mission in search of the Northwest Passage. The title, “Aurora Borealis,” refers to the Northern Lights, the eerie colorful ribbons of light that blanket the top half of the painting.
Obviously, I’ve heard of the Aurora Borealis before, but I wonder what exactly the Northern Lights are and how they’re formed, so I’m heading down the road to Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to talk with David DeVorkin, the Senior Curator for the History of Astronomy. We’re here in the Einstein Planetarium because I’m curious, David, what is the Aurora Borealis?
DAVID DEVORKIN: They are, in a way, a manifestation of what we now call space weather.
MELISSA: Space weather?
DD: Yeah, have you ever walked down the street and, you know, you look into a restaurant, and there’s this red sign that goes O-P-E-N? Blink, blink.
DD: Okay, well what’s causing that glow is the same kind of process that’s causing the atmosphere to glow.
MELISSA: So, the aurora is like a neon sign?
DD: Yeah, yeah, but, it’s not neon, yeah, it’s oxygen, and when the sun burps, you might say, there’s a little solar flare or something, a little explosion, which happens to be 10 times the size of the earth, but on the sun scale it’s, you know, nothing. The atmosphere is reacting to very high energy particles coming from the sun, streaming from the sun, and sometimes the stream is stronger, sometimes it’s weaker, and what you get are these different shapes, shimmering and glowing.
MELISSA: Is that why when we see the aurora, we can sometimes see different colors?
DD: You get those different colors as a function of where did the collision take place, where’d the absorption take place, where’d the emission take place, and what element is involved.
MELISSA: Okay, so now I know what the Aurora Borealis is, but I wonder how much Frederic Church knew about it in the 1860s. If anyone can help me it’s Eleanor Harvey. She’s a SAAM curator extraordinaire who specializes in 19th century landscape painting, and she’s even written about Church in her most recent book.
ELEANOR HARVEY: What’s on your mind?
MELISSA: Well, I’ve heard that Church was friends with Isaac Hayes and other explorers, so I’m wondering was Church a science nerd?
EH: He was a science nerd. For Church, learning about science was part of being an artist, but in 1859 there was an amazing aurora that Church saw from his studio in New York City.
MELISSA: Wow, that far south?
EH: That far south – actually, this was an aurora that was visible as far south as Cuba. It was in all of the papers and the scientific journals.
MELISSA: What did regular, non-scientist people think was going on?
EH: They thought the world was ending. Quite seriously. Although, auroras are weird. The auroras were one of those sort of things that were deeply unsettling. They could be an omen, and particularly during the Civil War years when the Aurora Borealis was painted, so it really did depend on your point of view.
MELISSA: So, what do you think the auroras are? Do they represent something, then?
EH: I think they’re working on a couple of different levels in this painting, and that’s typical of artists. It is first and foremost a picture of an Arctic rescue expedition.
MELISSA: Right, right.
EH: But it’s also playing into that trauma about the Civil War. It’s not 100% clear that the Union is going to win. We don’t really know how this is going to turn out. That’s one of the things that makes American art fun – it makes all art fun but American art in particular – is you can tie it back to the people, the place, the current events. So when you see something interesting going on in a painting, the first thing you should be asking is, wait a second, what was going on at this time period that makes this make sense?
MELISSA: Okay, so this is all coming together. Thanks to overactive solar burps, the Aurora Borealis would’ve been visible not only in the Arctic north where the Hayes Expedition took place, but so far south that Frederic Church would’ve been able to see them from his New York studio, but Church isn’t just documenting nature in this work, he’s using the aurora as a symbol of the chaos and uncertainty gripping America during the Civil War. The Northern Lights are both a fascinating scientific phenomenon and an expression of the fear and anxiety of Church’s time.
Bye, art nerds.
What do arctic explorers, solar burps, and the Civil War have to do with American art?
SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.