Aurora Borealis is an 1865 painting by Frederic Edwin Church of the aurora borealis and the Arctic expedition of Dr. Isaac Hayes. The painting measures 56 × 841/2 in. (142.3 × 212.2 cm) and is now owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Aurora Borealis is based on two separate sketches. The first incident was an aurora witnessed by Church's pupil, the Arctic explorer Isaac I. Hayes. Hayes 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 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. Contrasting with his earlier works The North and The Icebergs (1861), the intact ship highlights Hayes' achievements in navigating this space, as well as the state of the nation in navigating this contentious historical moment. Presenting the ship's safe passage through the eerie experience, Church suggested optimism for the future with a tiny light shining out from the ship's window.
Charles Millard describes Church's paintings as "large in scale and size, sharply horizontal in format" and "...dramatic in subject, but yielding in execution, and tend to exploit both value contrast and continuous tonal transition." Church's works, including Aurora Borealis, were completed using small touches of pigment built together through thin applications, leaving the viewer unaware of fracture between strokes. These works are also built around the tones of "ochre, brown, gray going to blue or green, and green" at the expense of the full value of color.
Church's landscape conformed to the aesthetic principles of the picturesque, as propounded by the British theorist William Gilpin, which began with a careful observation of nature that was then enhanced by particular notions about composition and harmony.
Aurora Borealis and some of Church's other landscape works, such as Morning in the Tropics (1877), are examples of Church's use of luminism. Characteristics of luminism are: a diffuse light, a hazy atmosphere, and a calm view of the land. The luminism painting style is an aspect of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, of which Frederic Edwin Church was a part, and is associated with American landscapes in the 19th century.
The theory of British critic John Ruskin was also an important influence on Church. Ruskin's Modern Painters was a five-volume treatise on art that was, according to American artist Worthington Whittredge, "in every landscape painter's hand" by mid-century. Ruskin emphasized the scrutiny of nature, and he viewed art, morality, and the natural world as spiritually unified. Following this theme, the painting displays the landscape in detail at all scales, from the intricate foliage, birds, and butterflies in the foreground to the all-encompassing portrayal of the natural environments studied by Church. The presence of the cross suggests the peaceful coexistence of religion with the landscape.
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