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Frederic E. Church (1826–1900) ~ Oil on Canvas ~ 1865

Original ~ 56 x 83 1/2 in. (142.3 x 212.2 cm)
Smithsonian American Art Museum ~ Gift of Eleanor Blodgett  ~ 1911



The ship and sled team in this painting belonged to Frederic Church's friend and pupil, polar explorer Dr. Isaac Hayes who had led an Arctic expedition in 1860. He provided his sketches and description of the aurora borealis display he witnessed one January evening as inspiration for this painting.  Aurora Borealis is based on two separate sketches.  The first incident was an aurora witnessed by Hayes.  Coinciding with Hayes' furthest northern movement into what he named Cape Leiber, the aurora borealis appeared over the peak. 


In vivid description, 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…”  

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