The artists of the Hudson River School ventured far beyond the New York region suggested in the name that was applied to them. Here, for example, Frederic Church depicts Cotopaxi, an active volcano in Ecuador. The tiny foreground figures suggest the insignificance of people in comparison with the natural wonders that surround them: the volcano, the waterfall, and the lush tropical foliage.
A member of the second generation of Romantic landscape painters, Church ranks among the most influential American artists during the period between 1850 and 1875. As a youth, he studied with Thomas Cole, one of the Hudson River School founders, and Cole’s renderings of the Sicilian volcano Mount Etna may have provided inspiration for Cotopaxi. More directly, Church conceived of this work following a visit to South America in 1853, after which he depicted the cone-shaped volcano repeatedly for nearly a decade.
Painted at a turbulent moment in America’s history, before the outbreak of the Civil War, Cotopaxi embodies Church's response to current events. The smoldering volcano in the background carries portents of destruction, and the palm tree—which does not exist on the actual site of Cotopaxi—symbolizes both Latin America and the Garden of Eden. In addition to containing inherent moralistic messages, awe-inspiring American Romantic landscape paintings such as this one also served as documents of distant, exotic sites in the era before photography and modern travel.