"Twilight in the Wilderness:" A Close Look at an American Masterpiece

Frederic Edwin Church was one of our country’s consummate artistic talents, and his masterpiece, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), ranks among the Cleveland Museum of Art’s most admired paintings. This fall, beginning Saturday, October 4, we will showcase the majestic work in a special focus exhibition, Maine Sublime: Frederic Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness, displaying it alongside nearly two dozen the artist painted the canvas in his New York studio, partly basing it on sketches he produced during travels near Mount Katahdin in Maine. Two sketches from Olana that closely relate to Twilight in the Wilderness are highlighted in the exhibition.

Although Church often extolled the breathtaking beauty and sublimity of America’s pristine wilderness in drawn and painted sketches from the artist’s own private collection at Olana, his historic home, studio, and landscaped property on the Hudson River. Several are on public view for the first time.

Rendered with a scientific realism that reflects Church’s abiding interest in natural history, Twilight in the Wilderness is a spectacular view of a blazing sunset over a distant purple mountain. Cloaked amid quickening nightfall, its foreground features a dark crimson lake flanked by masses of dramatically twisted and attenuated trees. Even if the exact scene it depicts is open to debate—in fact, some historians surmise it may be a composite view of multiple locations—it is known that his work, our painting appears to have additional overtones, particularly because twilight is a transitional time so visibly evolving toward an end. Created on the eve of the Civil War, when its outbreak appeared inevitable, the painting’s subject can be perceived as symbolically evoking the coming conflagration; indeed, one scholar has memorably described the painting as a “natural apocalypse.” Other interpretations include the possibility that Twilight in the Wilderness references the increasingly threatened state of our country’s unspoiled natural environment, already an issue during the artist’s day.

Wood Interior on Mount Turner c.1877. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil and graphite on paper mounted on canvas; 31.3 x 51.6 cm. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation OL.1980.1869.

Church enjoyed a long-standing love affair with Maine, which he described as “magnificent both land and seaward.” Over the 30-year period from 1850 to 1880, he made more than a dozen trips to the state’s Katahdin region and Mount Desert Island. An avid outdoorsman, Church camped, hiked, rode horses, canoed, and fished during these visits, but most imperative was his professional objective to record scenery. Depicting impressive peaks, windswept coasts, dramatic sunsets, as well as solitary trees and rock formations, his resultant sketches capture expansive vistas and intimate corners. A fine example of the latter is Wood Interior on Mount Turner (about 1877, piictured above), an informal yet deft depiction of a cluster of tree trunks, some living and others dead. Anchoring the center is a tree blasted by lightning, a familiar motif in the art of Church suggesting the awe-inducing  power of nature.

See Maine Sublime: Frederic Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness at the Cleveland Museum of Art beginning Saturday, October 4!
*Members See It First: This article also appears in the September/October issue of the CMA Member Magazine.

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