The Hudson River Valley Institute

Home » Uncategorized » Church’s painting “Cotopaxi,” and the Civil War

Church’s painting “Cotopaxi,” and the Civil War


Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 85 inches, 1862

Fredric Edwin Church (1826-1900), who had been a pupil of the Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole, was a well-established landscape painter by 1840. Church was drawn to the natural history writings of Alexander Von Humboldt, who had traveled to South America and documented the natural setting. In particular, Church was drawn to the Ecuadorian volcano Cotopaxi, which Humboldt described as being one of the “most active and formidable” in the world[1].

From 1853-1857 Church visited South America twice and the influence of this trip became the catalyst for some of his greatest landscapes, including Cotopaxi. In his earlier depictions of the volcano, Church depicts it in a snowy state, with a tropical landscape below it. This benign position indicates a calm and tranquil scene that would be abandoned by Church in his second rendering of the painting in 1862. By 1862 our nation was entrenched in a civil war that was growing more and more bloody. In Church’s work, we see his vision of America at this tumultuous time being expressed through the eruption of a Volcano. Thus Cotopaxi is not a painting about a battle during the civil war or the war itself, it is a landscape depiction influenced by the war.

When looking into the picture the most obvious observation is the color palette that Church decided to use. The picture is dominated by the colors red and orange in the sky depicting a blood-red sunset[2]. The colors directly relate to the activity of landscape’s main feature, the volcano itself. During the Civil War, volcanoes became a popular metaphor to symbolize the destructive times people were living in[3]. Church utilizes this metaphor by showing the volcanic display as a display of nature’s power. Cotopaxi is shown erupting, with its smoke rolling over the side of the mountain and nearly engulfing the landscape. Many linked the ash and smoke to the overwhelming canon smoke that would drift across battlefields at the time. The threat the smoke poses to both the natural sunlight and the landscape could reveal a warning by Church at the time. The “battlefield smoke” spewing from the Volcano threatens the natural landscape which represents the war taking over the country[4].

By 1862 the war was raging and the threat it posed to a single union was enormous. In another interpretation the Volcano could be seen as a societal upheaval, or slavery. In Fredrick Douglass’s 1861 address titled “The American Apocalypse” he was quoted as saying “Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on earth the smoke and stench of whose torments ascend upward forever”[5]. Douglass indicates that Race slavery is America’s volcano waiting to erupt. A year later Church’s Cotopaxi was completed and Slavery would become the biggest issue of the war itself, with the emancipation proclamation.


“Saturday Volcano Art: Fredric Edwin Church, ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862).” The Volcanism Blog, February 14, 2017.

Harvey, Eleanor “The Civil War and American Art: Cotopaxi, America’s “Moral Compass”. February 14, 2017.

[1] “Saturday Volcano Art: Fredric Edwin Church, ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862),” The Volcanism Blog, February 14, 2017,

[2] “Saturday Volcano Art: Fredric Edwin Church, ‘Cotopaxi’ (1862),” The Volcanism Blog, February 14, 2017,

[3] Eleanor Harvey, “The Civil War and American Art: Cotopaxi, America’s “Moral Compass”, February 14, 2017,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Hours & Info

Mon.-Fri: 9am - 5pm
%d bloggers like this: