The Politics of Color in the Arctic Landscape: Blackness at the Center of Frederic Edwin Church’s Aurora Borealis and the Legacy of 19th-Century Limits of Representation

American painter Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental oil painting Aurora Borealis (1865) presents a stark contrast to the dominant Western tradition of representing the Arctic as monochrome and static. This article discusses how the impressive palette of Aurora Borealis and its black semi-circle in the center allow for a revisionist understanding of Church’s contributions to a rich history of Arctic representation, including in an age of climate change and rapidly melting ice. The article connects Aurora Borealis to emerging lens technologies—especially photography and astronomy, and later the cinema and composite satellite imagery, to argue for circumpolar north as globally connected—then, and now. The article furthermore draws connections to the nineteenth-century trade in pigments, the interconnected routes of slavery, and cultural modes of urban modernity.

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