The coming storm: American landscape painting and the Civil War

Despite a growing interest in the sciences, Americans still looked to religion to help explain the unexplainable. Chief among the phenomena invoking apocalypse and days of judgment was the Aurora Borealis-eerie, silent flickerings of lurid light that rippled across the sky like an unhinged nocturnal rainbow. It was difficult at the time to find a description of an aurora that did not link it in some way with the war. That message was delivered in terms both scientific and apocalyptic by one of the most prominent Arctic explorers of his generation, Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes. In July 1860 Hayes sailed from Boston and wintered over in the Arctic, trapped in the ice pack. His safe return in October 1861 was cause for celebration-a rare bright spot in a winter dark with war. His ship, the SS United States, had survived an Arctic winter and returned intact, which was more than could be said for its namesake, the ship of state. At a lecture on his experiences Hayes noted, "Since we last met in this hall great changes have taken place. When I left the regions of eternal ice, I little dreamed that a powerful rebellion was desolating my country, and that civil war was raging among a people which I left prosperous and happy. . . . God willing, I trust yet to carry the flag of our great Republic, with not a single star erased from its glorious Union, to the extreme northern limits of the earth."8 Hayes cast polar exploration as a form of patriotism, endurance as a northern value.

He spoke eloquently about the brilliant auroras he witnessed on his trip, emphasizing the apocalyptic overtones of this phenomenon, noting that the strange light "glowed again, as if the air were filled with charnel meteors, pulsating with wild inconstancy over some vast illimitable city of the dead."9 Church and Hayes had become friends, each man developing an interest in the other's profession.10 In 1864 as Church turned to paint his Aurora Borealis (Fig. 6), he seemed to have a similarly apocalyptic framework in mind. Under a dark Arctic sky, the explorer's ship lies frozen in the packed ice at the base of a looming cliff. The heavens erupt in a cascade of eerie lights ranging from red to greenish-yellow. Church's vision of the Arctic night renders this "illimitable" place with a powerful sense of melancholy and discord. As the ice grips Hayes's SS United States, and by proxy the nation, the auroras snake across the sky like a grim warning from God, a bleak foreshadowing of doom. Artist and explorer present the Arctic as the antipode of Eden, the inverse of paradise, an unearthly landscape that functions as an inversion of the optimistic landscapes that made Church's reputation. 

In March 1865, as the end of the war approached, Yosemite glowed from the easel of Albert Bierstadt's studio like Eden reborn. In Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (Fig. 7) a majestic sunset floods the valley floor with intense yellow light. The painting is unique among Bierstadt's depictions of Yosemite in being entirely unpopulated-devoid of animals, birds, or humans. It suggested a new Eden after the flood, a place poised for the arrival of the ark to usher in a new future. Visually and psychologically Bierstadt's painting is the antithesis of Church's keening Arctic wasteland. Yosemite held out the promise of a place in which all Americans could slough off the trauma of war and sectarian strife, a place of renewal and healing.

Since its discovery by white settlers in the early 1850s, Yosemite's geological features and verdant valley floor had been described as evidence of the beneficent hand of God in the wilderness. Following his first visit on July 11, 1860, the eloquent Boston preacher Thomas Starr King delivered a sermon to his congregation in San Francisco in which he proclaimed the holy qualities of Yosemite, whose mountains "were created as an overflow of God's goodness," feelings that "lead me to the rock that is higher than I."11

Bierstadt had hoped to travel west in 1862, but the war delayed his plans. He finally made his way to Yosemite in the summer of 1863 after receiving authorization from the War Department for a military escort. He described his reaction to his first view of the Yosemite Valley in a letter to his friend John Hay, President Lincoln's personal secretary, "We are now here in the garden of Eden I call it."12 It was a prophetic and calculated statement of hope and redemption for war-torn America. A group of Californians advocated that the site be designated a park and sought federal acknowledgment of the area's unique landforms and recreational potential.13 Their efforts were rewarded in June 1864, when Abraham Lincoln signed legislation setting aside Yosemite as America's first federally recognized park.14 In location and topography, this valley was deemed exactly what the nation needed while war raged-hallowed ground-and a return to Eden. In setting aside this place, Lincoln declared Yosemite a regenerative sanctuary for the entire country.15

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. Less than a week later John Wilkes Booth, unable to accept the defeat of the Confederacy, shot and killed the president.

When the National Academy of Design opened its spring exhibition, delayed in deference to Lincoln's death, one of the paintings prominently displayed was one Sanford Gifford had completed in 1863, A Coming Storm (Fig. 8). What made this painting stand out was the wall label noting that it was owned by the Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother to the president's assassin. Gifford's painting became a touchstone for grieving New Yorkers. Melville's poem about the painting interpreted it as emblematic of Edwin's emotional state as well as that of the nation.16 The poignant connection between Gifford's storm, Edwin Booth's personal anguish, and the nation's grief lent deeper significance to this work.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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