Our Banner in the Sky

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Our Banner in the Sky
Frederic Edwin Church
Oil paint over photomechanically produced lithograph
7 1/2 x 11 3/8 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

Our Banner in the Sky is a patriotic and artistic response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861. This first battle of the Civil War led Abraham Lincoln to call for 75,000 militiamen to put down what he called an "insurrection" in the South. Here, artist Frederic Edwin Church painted a vividly colored American flag in the sky as a dynamic part of nature at sunrise. Look at how the short brushstrokes and glow of the clouds form the stripes and the deep blue sky between the clouds is dotted with stars. Above a tree that stands like a flagpole, an eagle—the national bird of the United States—soars through the sky.

Church created an American flag in the heavens, as if the Union was guided by a higher purpose. (The American flag had figured prominently in the battle, as Confederates shot at it during the bombardment and Union troops eventually lowered it when they surrendered to rebel forces.) By responding to the attack on Fort Sumter in this way, Church makes a political statement in defense of the Union which was shared by Northerners like himself. He also followed a landscape painting tradition in which nature is used to communicate more than what meets the eye; in this case, he wanted to refer to concepts important to nineteenth-century Americans, such as national identity, destiny, and progress.

An affordable print of this image was made in June 1861, and many viewers purchased their own copy and even wrote poems about it, dedicated to the artist.

1. Look at the colors and brushstrokes in this painting. How do you think Church’s personal feelings about the Union influenced the way he painted? Compare it to other landscapes painted during the Civil War like Autumn Afternoon, the Wissahickon and The Hudson River at West Point. How is this painting different?

2. Although at the beginning of the war most Northerners saw fighting the Southern rebellion as a matter of keeping the Union intact, some Northerners would eventually see the Civil War as a moral battle between the good of ending slavery and evil of allowing it to continue. Do you think that Church makes morality a theme in this painting? Give examples to support your conclusions.

Further reading:
Burke, Doreen Bolger. “Frederic Edwin Church and ‘The Banner of Dawn.’” American Art Journal 14 (Spring 1982): 39-46. 

Newberry Library. "Our Banner in the Sky." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. http://publications.newberry.org/digitalexhibitions/exhibits/show/homefront/introduction/introbanner.

©Terra Foundation for American Art