Polar Landscapes Expanding Perspectives

Beginning in the nineteenth century, some artists began infusing polar landscapes with symbolic meaning. Making references to social and political issues often became more important than documenting the icy environment.

Artists such as Edwin Landseer, Caspar David Friedrich, Nicholas Kahn, and Richard Selesnick never traveled to the Arctic but were inspired instead by popular culture’s fascination with the poles. Despite the wide range of interpretations and messages, both early and contemporary artists usually respond, in some way, to the beauty of ice. 

Frederic Edwin Church was adept at depicting landscapes as metaphors. The symbolism of his Aurora Borealis has been discussed within the context of the US Civil War, which ended the same year the painting was completed. Some art historians suggest that the artist was referring to the death and doom of war. Others believe the painting heralds the impending victory of the Union army.

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

Church shows Isaac Israel Hayes’ (1832–1881) ship caught in the ice during his North Pole expedition in 1860–61. The artist, who tutored the explorer in drawing, was later given a sketch by Hayes that provided documentation for the painting. Church Mountain, named by Hayes in honor of the artist, can be seen in the distant background.