Painted in 1865 by Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis is - like the artist's other well-known Civil War painting's Our Banner in the Sky and Our Flag - an allegorical representation of his spiritual belief that the Union was under divine providence.
In the painting, according to the Smithsonian: "Polar explorer Isaac Israel Hayes's ship, the SS United States, lies under a dark Arctic sky - frozen in the packed 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."
Artist: Frederic Edwin Church
Original medium: Oil on Canvas