Under a dark Arctic sky, polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes’s ship, the SS United States, lies frozen in the pack ice at the base of a looming cliff. The auroras above erupt in a cascade of eerie lights, while the dogsled implies the hope of rescue from this icy prison. Hayes and Frederic Church were friends, and upon Hayes’s return from the Arctic in 1861, he gave Church his sketches as inspiration for this painting. When Hayes returned to New York, the country was in the thick of civil war and, in a rousing speech, he vowed that “God willing, I trust yet to carry the flag of the great Republic, with not a single star erased from its glorious Union, to the extreme Northern limits of the earth.”
During the Civil War, the auroras — usually visible only in the north — were widely interpreted as signs of God’s displeasure with the Confederacy for advocating slavery, and of the high moral stakes attached to a Union victory. Viewers understood that Church’s painting of the Aurora Borealis (also known as the northern lights) alluded to this divine omen relating to the unresolved conflict.
(Text courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum).