Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900): Aurora Borealis

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900): Aurora Borealis

2/18/2021, 9:47:16 AM
Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900): Aurora Borealis (detail), 1865, Oil on canvas, 142.3 cm × 212.2 cm (56 in × 83.5 in), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. In 1859 Church accompanied his friend, polar explorer Dr. Isaac Hayes on an expedition to the Arctic, where he made the sketches for 'Aurora Borealis'. Isaac Hayes also provided a sketch and description of the aurora borealis display he witnessed one January evening. Coinciding with Hayes' furthest northern movement into what he named Cape Leiber, the aurora borealis appeared over the peak. Describing the event, Hayes wrote: "The light grew by degrees more and more intense, and from irregular bursts it settled into an almost steady sheet of brightness... The exhibition, at first tame and quiet, became in the end startling in its brilliancy. The broad dome above me is all ablaze... The color of the light was chiefly red, but this was not constant, and every hue mingled in the fierce display. Blue and yellow streamers were playing in the lurid fire; and, sometimes starting side by side from the wide expanse of the illuminated arch, they melt into each other, and throw a ghostly glare of green into the face and over the landscape. Again this green overrides the red; blue and orange clasp each other in their rapid flight; violet darts tear through a broad flush of yellow, and countless tongues of white flame, formed of these uniting streams, rush aloft and lick the skies." The iconography of the painting suggested personal and nationalistic references. The peak in the painting had been named Mount Church during Hayes's expedition. Aurora Borealis incorporated details of Hayes' ship, drawn from a sketch he brought back upon returning from his expedition. Aurora Borealis and some of Church's other landscape works are examples of his use of luminism: a diffuse light, a hazy atmosphere, and a calm view of the land.

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