Aurora Borealis Painting Pays Tribute to Civil War’s End

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USGS explores the meaning behind Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting, “Aurora Borealis.”

USGS explores the meaning behind Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting, “Aurora Borealis.” 

Aurora silently illuminates a barren and frozen world of mountains, a schooner locked in sea ice, and a man witha dog-drawn sled
“Aurora Borealis,” Frederic Edwin Church, 1865. Aurora silently illuminates a barren and frozen world of mountains, a schooner locked in sea ice, and a man with a dog-drawn sled in this richly symbolic landscape painting. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY 

This year marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, one of the most poignant periods in U.S. history.

USGS scientist Jeffrey J. Love recently published an article that discusses an example of how science and nature may have been used to pay tribute to the war’s conclusion. The article is published in the American Geophysical Union journal Eos.

Love discusses the painting, “Aurora Borealis,” which was unveiled by the great American landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church just before the war ended in 1865. The article provides an analysis of the artist’s career and the painting’s symbolic significance.

Exploring the Painting’s Meaning

It is a dramatic and mysterious painting that can be interpreted in terms of 19th century romanticism, scientific philosophy and Arctic missions of exploration.

There are various interpretations of the painting’s underlying message in relation to the war. For example, some have suggested that the drapery of light in “Aurora Borealis” represents the American flag. If so, then it has been unfurled across a cold and barren landscape, not in extravagant celebration of the war’s anticipated end, but in subdued and somber recognition of the reality of postwar desolation and an uncertain future.

Aurora Phenomena

Aurora borealis occur in the northern hemisphere and are often called “northern lights.” In the southern hemisphere, the same phenomena are called aurora australis or “southern lights.” They are often seen during magnetic storms, which are caused by a dynamic interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field.

Intense magnetic storms can interfere with radio communications, GPS systems, satellites and directional drilling for oil and gas. Large geomagnetic storms can even interfere with the operations of electric power grids, causing blackouts.

USGS Science

The USGS operates a network of specially designed observatories that provide real-time data on magnetic storm conditions.

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