Aurora Borealis
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Aurora Borealis is more than meets the eye.

On the dawn of September 2, 1859, something spectacular happened: people as far south as Columbia in the northern hemisphere were treated to the spectacle of an aurora due to a historic southernly shift in the geomagnetic north pole. Many in the United States, which stood upon the cliff side of a civil war, read the event as a portent of friction. They were right. When the American Civil War broke, the northern lights quickly became an icon of God’s divine displeasure with the crooked Confederacy, and a symbol of his shining support for the northern Union.

Church’s Aurora, painted not long after the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863, a victory that shifted favor to the north, is an optimistic painting. It was inspired by his good friend and the great arctic explorer Isaac Israel Hayes, the naval captain of the SS United States. His boat can be seen mired in the arctic ice in the bottom left, and possibly as the lone human figure commanding the dog-led sled to the boat’s right. Hayes was also a student of draughtsmanship under Church, painting as much as he could of the frigid north. On his travels, which he returned from in 1861, Hayes composed a work featuring a similar set of mountains as the ones seen here, calling the peak there Church Peak in honor of his master. That same mountain peak, barely visible in the background of this painting, is dimly illuminated by the northern lights.

Church himself was an American nationalist in support of the Union. One of his more well known works is an ingenious landscape where an opening in a cloud-red sky creates an imitation of the star spangled banner. Critics have read the colorings in Aurora as suggestive of the flag as well, but that seems like a bit of a stretch. To have the SS United States poised under the glow of the northern lights, an icon of the Union, in a painting released shortly after the end of the Civil War seems much more suggestive of a hidden America-proud message in Aurora Borealis than speculations about flag iconography. To put it simply, it was in the Northern Lights we trust for Church. Who could blame him?



  1. Cárdenas, Freddy Moreno, Sergio Cristancho Sánchez, and Santiago Vargas Domínguez. "The Grand Aurorae Borealis Seen in Colombia in 1859." Advances in Space Research 57, no. 1 (2016): 257-67. Accessed January 30, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2015.08.026.
  2. Love, Jeffrey J. "Aurora Painting Pays Tribute to Civil War's End." Eos. March 28, 2016. Accessed January 30, 2019.
  3. "Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900)." The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed January 30, 2019.
  4. Church, Frederic Edwin. "Aurora Borealis." Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed January 30, 2019.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Aurora Borealis (painting)

Aurora Borealis is an 1865 painting by Frederic Edwin Church of the aurora borealis and the Arctic expedition of Isaac Israel Hayes. The painting measures 142.3 by 212.2 centimetres (56.0 in × 83.5 in) 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 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 colour 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.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Aurora Borealis (painting).

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