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Saturday Volcano Art: Frederic Edwin Church, ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862) 4 April 2009

Posted by admin in Saturday volcano art, volcano art, volcano culture, volcano images, volcanoes.

Frederic Edwin Church, 'Cotopaxi' (1862)

The Ecuadorean stratovolcano Cotopaxi has a violent history of frequent explosive eruptions generating pyroclastic flows and lahars. Between 1803 and 1895 there were over thirty such eruptions, with the largest, the VEI=4 event of 1877, producing lahars which swept through adjacent valleys, destroying much of the city of Latacunga with many fatalities, and ultimately reached as far as the Pacific coast, 270 kilometres to the west.

The painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), who had been a pupil of Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole and was by the late 1840s a noted painter of American landscapes, was drawn to South America by the geological and natural history writings of Alexander von Humboldt, who had travelled through the continent from 1799 to 1804. Church visited South America twice, in 1853 and 1857, and was inspired by the mountains and volcanoes of the northern Andes to paint some of his greatest landscapes. Cotopaxi, which Humboldt had discussed at some length and which was one of the most aesthetically striking volcanoes of the region, as well as being one of the most active and formidable, was a natural subject for his art. Church’s earlier paintings of Cotopaxi depicted the volcano’s snowy cone rising placidly above a lush tropical landscape, steam rising gently from its summit, a living but benign presence. The painting shown here, executed in 1861-2, has a very different atmosphere. In this other-wordly scene we are presented with a staggering display of nature’s power, as the volcano violently erupts against a blood-red sunset, exploding upwards and spreading its dark smoke like a banner across the sky.

Church takes the volcano as a display of nature’s power and intensifies every aspect of it to suggest a cataclysmic conflict between the forces of darkness and those of light. All around are evidences of vast, incomprehensible energies: the roaring volcano, the blazing sun, the huge waterfall plunging into a rocky canyon, whose steep sides represent vast stretches of geological time. Yet the green foliage of the trees, the sparkling waters, the light of the sun penetrating the ashy gloom of the volcano’s clouds, indicate that even these awe-inspiring forces are ultimately under the control of a beneficent providence. Cotopaxi embodies the great natural energies driving the forces not only of destruction but of creation and renewal.

Frederic Edwin Church’s ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862) can be found at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Righteous Armies, Holy Cause: Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002)

Frank Baron, ‘From Alexander von Humboldt to Frederic Edwin Church: Voyages of Scientific Exploration and Artistic Creativity’ (2005)

William Gerdts, ‘The worlds of Frederic Edwin Church’ (2008)

David Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church (New York: George Braziller, 1966)

David Huntington, ‘Church and Luminism: light for America’s elect’, in John Wilmerding (ed.), American Light: The Luminists Movement 1850-1875 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1980)

Katherine Manthorne, Creation and Renewal: Views of Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985)

Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (1980; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

The Volcanism Blog