Expanding Perspectives on Polar Landscapes

Expanding Perspectives on Polar Landscapes

Beginning in the nineteenth century,  artists began immersing polar landscapes with symbolic meaning. They reference social and political issues that become more significant than documenting the icy environment.

Artists such as Edwin Landseer, Caspar David Friedrich, Nicholas Kahn, and Richard Selesnick never traveled to the Arctic. Their work reflected popular culture’s enduring attraction to the poles. Despite the wide array of approaches, interpretations and messages, early and contemporary artists usually acknowledge, in some way, the beauty of ice.

Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Frederic Edwin Church masterfully interpreted landscapes as metaphors. The symbolism of his Aurora Borealis has been understood within the context of the US Civil War. Some art historians believe that the artist was referencing the death and doom of war. Others maintain that Church was alluding to the impending victory of the Union army.

Church’s painting depicts an incident from an actual expedition,  specifically Isaac Israel Hayes’ (1832–1881) ship caught in the ice during the winter of  1860–61. The artist, who taught Hayes how to draw, was later presented with a sketch by the explorer. This provided documentation for the painting. Church Mountain, named by Hayes in honor of the artist, is visible in the distance.  

Top banner image: Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick, Currency Balloon, from Eisbergfreistadt, 2008, archival inkjet print, 10 x 72 in.