Science, religion, and politics, Church’s Cotopaxi

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 215.9 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts) A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’ve just walked into the Detroit Institute of Art. We’ve looked to our left, and there, framed, is a large canvas by Frederic Church, “Cotopaxi.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] Boy, is it a showstopper. In this beautiful gallery, we look at an erupting volcano in South America. I feel like I’m looking at an apocalyptic scene of the end of the world.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] Church went to Ecuador twice. One of the reasons he went there is because he had been studying the work of the great naturalist and scientist, a German named Alexander von Humboldt, who spoke specifically about Cotopaxi, the volcano, calling it “the most dreadful volcano…its explosions most frequent and disastrous.”

[0:44] When this painting was put on exhibition, it functioned both as a work of art but also as a kind of scientific documentation of the geology of a distant land.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] This was a time when there’s a new understanding of Earth’s geology, seeing the earth as something that is continually changing, not something created once and for all by God. As something that evolves.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] Volcanism, the action of volcanoes, is one of the most dramatic and visible ways in which we see the earth change, and what a dramatic image Church has produced. You see Cotopaxi, this beautiful cone of a volcano situated on the left side of the canvas, spewing this enormous plume of smoke.

[1:24] We know that Church missed a full-fledged eruption just by a few days, but nevertheless he’s let his artistic imagination run with it, and we see the smoke, the ash, wafting across the sky that is this extraordinary panorama, almost creating mountains of smoke that are beginning to veil even the brilliance of the sun itself.

[1:43] There is something that’s both primordial and apocalyptic about this painting. One of the things that most characterizes Frederic Church’s technique is his ability to render precise detail despite the haze that pervades the painting from the ash and smoke, or even the mist that rises from the waterfall.

[2:00] When this was painted in 1862, the United States was embroiled in the Civil War. Some commentators understood this painting metaphorically, that the eruption itself was the violence of the eruption of the Civil War, that the ash and smoke that was covering the landscape was the despair and violence that pervaded the United States.

[2:19] But some pointed out the patch of clear blue sky in the upper left as a sign of hopefulness, and even went so far as to read a cross in the reflection of the sun in the lake below it as a sign of redemption for the nation.

Dr. Harris: [2:33] In fact, it’s interesting that Frederick Douglass, in 1861, just the year before Church painted this, gave an address entitled “The American Apocalypse” in which he is quoted as saying, “Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on the earth, the smoke and stench of whose torments ascend upward forever.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] This is not an illustration of those ideas, but it may in some way embody the sentiments that the nation itself was feeling. Church is associated with the style of American painting known as the Hudson River School, but this is very far from the Hudson River.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] The artists of the Hudson River School not only painted landscapes on the American east coast, but also painted the grandeur of the American west.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] This was a time when travel was just becoming easy to the American west, but certainly not to South America. Certainly not to Ecuador.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] What we have before us appears to be a vast, empty landscape, and the painting is so large and there’s so much to see that one tends to look at one part of it at a time. My eye stops, for example, on the orange shadows on the rocks to the right, which would have been understood as revealing the age of the earth in the 19th century.

[3:43] Then my eye moves to this flat area toward the center, outward toward the lake and to the horizon line. Then to the left, to a waterfall, some trees, and then we see the one figure who occupies this painting. So small in the vastness of this landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] A woman framed beautifully by a parting in the trees, shown leading a llama.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] The 19th century would have used the word “sublime” to describe this painting. The sublime is kind of beauty which elicits fear and a sense of the awesome power of nature. It’s an almost horrifying, overwhelming experience.

[4:22] One of my favorite passages is the birds on the lower right that fly against that cliff face. Just like the human figure on the far left, the birds on the far right seem dwarfed by Cotopaxi.

[4:34] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Science, religion, and politics, Church’s Cotopaxi," in Smarthistory, March 15, 2021, accessed July 15, 2024,