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26 June, 2013
Church's Twilight in the Wilderness
About twenty years ago when my wife and I took a group of painters on a bus tour to the Cleveland Museum of Art, we encountered a visual feast that left us so saturated with art, especially painting, we were days recovering from the experience. With the passage of time, I don't recall too much about the trip now, just glimpses, eating a picnic lunch on the lawn beneath a massive beech tree, Jacques-Louis David's highly erotic Cupid and Psyche, and probably most impressive to me, the painting by Frederick Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness. I thought it was then, and I still think it is now, the most beautiful landscape painting I ever saw. I recall being so impressed with it I spent a considerable amount of time just drinking it in, and a considerable sum of money to purchase a slide of it so I could take it back and show my students at the time.

Critics have called Church's stunning, sunset landscape with its rich, rusty reds and striking blues and yellows as distinctly "American" as any landscape ever painted. Interestingly enough, in this light, the painting does not depict any one scene in particular. It is, in fact, a compilation of several different sketches made in Maine and New York. The brilliant lighting, by far the painting's most distinctive feature, and what most attracted me to it, was a sunset as seen outside Church's New York City studio window - a twilight perhaps but hardly a wilderness. It is a mark of Church's amazing mastery of the landscape genre that he was able to combine all these different sources into a highly convincing scene. The lower portion of the painting - the densely wooded land and reflective water of a lake - tends toward a monochromatic rust red with deep, dark earth tones. And, while the lake scene is interesting enough, it provides merely a setting for the dramatic light show staged by the twilight sun and the overhanging clouds. Church's handling of the rugged trees and especially his inclusion of a single, relatively tiny eagle roosting atop a barren tree on the far left edge of the painting further add character to the work.

Twilight in the Wilderness was painted in 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War, at a time when Church was starting to market his paintings in this country along the same lines as Courbet and others were in Europe, not by selling them, but by travelling with each one and charging admission to see it, much as motion pictures are shown today, though of course, on a much more limited basis. I'd certainly pay money to see it...in fact, though I don't recall specifically, I probably did. Many have focused on singular elements in the work. The almost minuscule eagle (less than an inch tall in a 40" tall painting) is seen by some as symbolising American power while the cross-like branches of the tree upon which it roosts suggest a religious element. Others see the dark, red, overhanging clouds as suggesting the blood-red wave of death and destruction about to sweep over the country from city to wilderness. Others suggest the painting might more aptly be titled Twilight of the Wilderness. That is, of course, a modern interpretation, one Church would likely not have considered. Maybe I'm more shallow than most, but none of these thoughts entered my mind as I recall viewing the work. I just remember being overwhelmed with the artist's intense, even daring, mastery of colour. I still am.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 December 2001

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