Looking Up: Skyscapes of the Civil War

Looking Up: Skyscapes of the Civil War

Frederic Edwin Church, Meteor of 1860, is in the collection of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt

Photos of the asteroid and a meteor which hit in Russia this past week reminded me of Frederick Edwin Church’s painting of a meteor, now on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition, The Civil War and American Art.  This month we celebrate President’s Day, Black History Month, and Spielberg’s film of Lincoln in the Oscars, while the exhibition presents the historical and sociological aspects of the civil war as interpreted by artists of that time.   Many paintings and photographs on display tell those stories, but there’s also a sub-theme of landscape as metaphor.  The scenery of two Hudson River School artists, Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, present geological and astronomical wonders with deeper meanings.
Church’s Meteor of 1860 connects to Walt Whitman’s poem in Leaves of Grass, Year of the Meteors (1859-60).  While Whitman’s poem spoke of John Brown’s rebellion and the election of Abraham Lincoln, it also described “the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,” and “the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads.  (A moment, a moment long it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)  

Church painted two large meteors followed by a trail of smaller sparks whose trail runs parallel to the earth.  Like Whitman’s description, his vision also appeared at night; it lit up sky in pink and cast a glowing reflection on the water.  He wrote about the event he had seen from his home in the Hudson River Valley, Catskill, New York on July 20, 1860.  Could he have seen this rare event as an omen?

Frederic Edwin Church, Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852 collection of the Fralin Art Museum, University of Virginia

The earliest painting by Church in the Smithsonian exhibition is The Natural Bridge, Virginia, a geological formation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which George Washington had surveyed and Thomas Jefferson had owned at one time.  His painting pulls our eyes upward to the  meticulously painted detail of the rock against white clouds and a brilliant blue sky.  Another story is told towards the bottom of the painting, where a black man explains this geographic wonder to a seated white woman, putting him in the authoritative position.

Frederic Edwin Church, Icebergs, 1861, from the Dallas Museum of Art

In 1859, Church had traveled by boat from New York to Labrador in search of icebergs.  He exhibited one result,  Icebergs, in New York on April 24, 1861, two weeks after war had broken out at Fort Sumter.  Church responded to the national strife, renaming the painting The North—Church’s Picture of Icebergs, thus signaling his political stance. Church allocated all exhibition fees to a fund established to support the Union Soldiers’ Fund.  The large, impregnable iceberg is said to represent the North itself.  Church also may have wished to commemorate the Battle of Fort Sumter and signal his sympathies in another well-known painting owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Our Banner in the Sky.

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

Church traveled worldwide in his exploration of nature, natural wonders and exotic landscapes.  In 1862, he painted the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador.  Volcanoes are frequently seen as harbingers of war and upheaval.   Frederick Douglas had said in 1861, “Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on earth.”  Cotopaxi, along with Icebergs, is one of the four large paintings which may be seen as allegories of the causes and events of the Civil War.

Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Church painted the northern lights in 1865 based on sketches provided by explorer Israel Hayes’ sketches from a voyage to Labrador.  Aurora Borealis is an expansive view of nature in blue, green yellow, orange and red.  The halo of lights makes the sky look grand, while a boat shrinks next to its magnificence.    Generally the northern lights were interpreted as omens of disaster, but fortunately the war ended during the year in which it was painted.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, 1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

There are other important paintings by Church in Washington, DC, including the National Gallery’s El Rio de Luz.  The Corcoran Gallery of Art owns Niagara Falls, 1857, above.  During the 19th century, lithographs of this painting circulated the country at a time when travel was not easy and photography was not widespread.  It’s worth going to the Corcoran to see the painting.  A gorgeous rainbow rises through the mist and spray, but is only visible by surprise when one stands in front of the real painting, not computer reproduction.  Frederic Church can be thanked for painting and interpreting the art of nature and for reminding us of mother nature’s greatness.