In 1862 Frederic Church received a commission for the picture from the philanthropist, James Leno. A signature and date that reads F.E. Church, 1862 appears in the lower right corner of the picture. The painting's owner is the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. They purchased the painting in 1976 for their collection. Although Church painted American landscapes, some of his works are of scenes outside America. The Cotopaxi volcano, located in the Andes Mountain in Ecuador, was one such scene. It was Church's visit to South America in 1853 that provided the idea for the theme used in the commission. He made use of the volcano, and the title Cotopaxi, as the subject for several of his works.
Looking at the picture, it has two features that focus the attention of viewers. Firstly there is the intense, almost fiery, glare of the sun as it rises. The second is the active volcano. The smoke rolling down the side of the erupting volcano appears to dominate a large part of the Andean plateau, almost obliterating it. The volcanic imagery has a palette of reds and oranges that helps create a reflection on the sunlit water. Some view the reflection as representing the cross because of its shape.
The painting symbolises Church's views of events at the time of the American Civil War. The reason is that he made use of weather and terrain to convey the emotions of war. The volcano in the picture was a popular metaphor at the time. It symbolises the destructive force that war is. Equally, the ash clouds were likened to cannon smoke moving across the battlefield. For the American public, the picture had an enormous impact. Through the imagery of the painting, they saw it as making a statement about the Civil War.
When it came to subjects for paintings, like Cotopaxi, Church sought inspiration from nature. That's why volcanoes and waterfalls feature in a variety of his works. People also played a part in influencing what Church painted. Probably the two best-known people to influence him were the artist, Thomas Cole and the German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. Thomas Cole was a long-time friend and someone with whom Church studied when beginning his career. Another influence on Church were the writings of Alexander von Humboldt's. It was while he was in Ecuador in 1853 that Church resided in a house where Humboldt had once lived. Church was also an influence on others like the artist’s George Bellows and Edward Hopper.