Cotopaxi, the quintessential nineteenth-century vision of nature’s sublime and terrifying power, was painted on commission for the well-known book collector and philanthropist James Lenox when Church was at the height of his fame. The painting made a tremendous impact on the American art public, who perceived it as a geological parable of the Civil War then in progress. The viewer’s attention is focused on two principal motifs—the burning disc of the rising sun in its contest with the smoldering volcano. The colors radiate with fiery intensity against a low, pearlescent skyline. In this cosmic drama of light dispelling darkness, Church mirrors the contemporary tragedy of the Civil War and offers hope for its resolution through the cross formed by the sun’s reflection on the lake. No other representation so summarized American ideals at this critical point in the nation’s history.
Artist Frederic Edwin Church
American, 1826-1900
Title
  • Cotopaxi
Date 1862
Medium oil on canvas
Dimensions Unframed: 48 × 85 in. (121.9 × 215.9 cm)
Framed: 66 5/8 in. × 103 in. × 6 1/4 in. (169.2 × 261.6 × 15.9 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Fund, Merrill Fund, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund, and Richard A. Manoogian Fund
Accession Number 76.89
Department American Art before 1950
On View American W280, Level 2 (see map)
Signed Signed and dated, lower right: F.E. CHURCH | 1862
1862-1880, commissioned by James Lenox (New York, New York, USA);
1880-1945, Lenox Library (later New York Public Library) (New York, New York, USA);
1945, dealer, M. Knoedler and Co. (New York, New York, USA);
1945-1976, John Astor (Miami, Florida, USA);
1976, dealer, Hirschl & Adler Galleries (New York, New York, USA);
1976-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
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New York Herald, March 16, 1863, 4.

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