Seldom does a single work of art have any kind of lasting impact upon a nation's social, political, or environmental course, especially in today's media-driven public consciousness. This, however, is the story of a painting that moved a nation. In 1866, Sanford Robinson Gifford painted Hunter Mountain, Twilight. Gifford was a card-carrying member of a late generation of painters of the fabled Hudson River School. But if the title of this painting brings to mind any kind of breathtaking, pristine wilderness scene reminiscent of Thomas Cole or Frederic Edwin Church, think again. Picture a bright, twilight sky, a distant, bluish mountain of modest proportions, and a landscape where the predominant colours are not deep forest greens but brownish, tannish earth tones with far more tree stumps than trees. This was Hunter Mountain as Gifford saw it and painted it shortly after the Civil War. And lest you link the two, although it might look like one, Hunter Mountain was in no way a Civil War battleground. It is in an area about a hundred miles or so north of New York City, overlooking the West bank of the Hudson River. It was a wilderness all right, but desolate, not pristine. It was a shameful mark of just how low we'd sunk as guardians of the virgin landscape we'd wrested control of from the natives little more than a hundred years before.
In the years following the Civil War, much of the state of New York was overrun with small farms, strip-cut logging, erosion, and in some areas, early forms of industrial water pollution. About 75% of the state's once-forested areas were a thing of the past. New York, and the lower Hudson Valley in particular, were some of the first documented areas of large-scale ecological destruction in this country. And one of the men responsible for this sad state was James Pinchot, a New York City logging and lumbering millionaire. He bought Hunter Mountain, Twilight from the artist sometime during the 1870s and the painting was to remain in the family for the next 90 years. His son, Gifford Pinchot, was born in 1865, the year Sanford Gifford made his first sketches for the painting. The boy was named after the artist. But if James Pinchot was an early "robber baron," he was not one without a conscience. He was also an art collector and in his later years, one of our nation's first conservationists. He helped found Yale University's School of Forestry and persuaded his son to go into the field.
Hunter Mountain, Twilight was a sort of "smoking gun," in effect, tangible proof that not only had the nation failed miserably in protecting its birthright, but that something had to be done to correct such a grievous sin. What remained for Pinchot the younger to do was to stir the political pot and prove that something could be done to repair the gross damage of a century of environmental rape. Gifford Pinchot took the family calling much further than even his father could have imagined. In the turn of the century Progressive era of American politics, President Teddy Roosevelt made him the first head of the newly established United States Forest Service. Later, he was twice elected Governor of Pennsylvania. And for a generation he was the most well known spokesman for conservation in the entire nation - with the possible exception of naturalist John Muir.
Muir was to the West what Pinchot was to the East and yet the two men were always at odds in their conservation philosophies. Pinchot saw the forests as renewable, manageable resources to be used and cultivated. Muir was more extreme, insisting that the wilderness should be left untouched by man in its most pristine state. Muir saw the devastation of Hunter Mountain, Twilight and vowed to protect his Sierra Nevada Mountains from such a fate. Pinchot saw his work as correcting the desperate problems of Hunter Mountain and the plundered Eastern landscape while controlling the various economic forces so that both might thrive. And both men (and their followers) have been successful. Today, photos of Hunter Mountain show a rich, vibrant, reforested green. The small farms have been abandoned; the Adirondacks have become a woodland recreation area. Large scale lumbering has largely moved to Muir's backyard where, ironically, Pinchot's forest management philosophy prevails - a shifting from art to science. And just as ironically, Muir's pristine wilderness ideals now dominate the area just north of New York where the city has been buying up thousands of woodland acres to protect its natural water supply and avoid the cost of large filtration plants. And in doing so, it has necessarily placed these areas off-limits to hiking, camping, and other forms of human encroachment.
Today, Hunter Mountain and Hunter Mountain, Twilight are both safe. In some areas near the mountain trees are often so dense you can hardly even see the mountain. And with the death of Gifford Pinchot in 1946, and his wife, Cornelia, 14 years later, the painting was literally ripped from the mantel of the Pinchot home where it had been framed into the panelling for decades. Twice it was resold in the 1980s. It now rests in Chicago's Terra Museum of American Art. The National Forrest Service inherited the rest of the Pinchot art collection. Unfortunately, these Hudson River landscapes, numbering over 200 works, did not enjoy the same good fortune. In fact, they've all disappeared. Twenty-five years ago, works by Hudson River School artists were out of favour. Appraisers valued them as worth no more than the canvas they were painted on. Pinchot family members believe they may have simply been left in the basement of the house where they were stored and been bulldozed over when the structure was demolished and the area reforested. Today, such nineteenth century Hudson River School paintings often bring five and six figure bids at auction. Thus, in the greatest irony of all, valuable art was likely sacrificed in the name of conservation.