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Twilight in the Wilderness

Twilight in the Wilderness

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900) oil on canvas, Framed: 124 x 185 x 13 cm (48 13/16 x 72 13/16 x 5 1/16 in); Unframed: 101.6 x 162.6 cm (40 x 64 in). Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233 The Cleveland Museum of Art

When Fredric Edwin Church completed this painting in his New York Studio, he was envisioning Mount Katahdin in Maine 2 years prior. Like many of Churches masterpieces, Twilight in the Wilderness was created after church had traveled and documented the particular site. The sketches and oil drawings that Church compiles over his stay, wherever he is, allows him to replicate scenes in nature in a unique, yet scientific way. The progression each one of Church’s scenes goes through ensures that the finest details are represented. Yet at the same time one can overlook these small details while focusing on the vast landscape in front of them.

One of Church’s tendencies in his work is to focus on the sublime of nature in comparison to the insignificant man. In his other works, such as Niagara, the sheer size of the falls and the drop of the horizon in background give the viewer a true sense of nature’s size. In this painting, Church positions the large mountain range behind the finer details visible in the foreground. The effect gives the onlooker a unique way of viewing the painting, as well as adding to the idea of the sublime. The fine details in the foreground show what we, as the viewer, would be able to interact with. The mountains however are untouched, large, and mysterious. This relationship gives the viewer the sense of America’s pristine and vast natural landscape that is both known and unknown. It’s the feeling that the mountains continue infinitely into spaces humans cannot and will not be able to see that creates the images sublimity.

The color schemes and artistic techniques utilized by Church add an aspect of scientific realism to his paintings. It is clear, in the color selection, that Church is utilizing the sun as the only source of light for his painting. We see the amber glow of the sunset peering through the clouds, as well as a low orange-yellow glow in the background. The sunset is cloaking nightfall, as the last hour of sunlight pierces through the clouds and shimmers on the lake[1]. The exactness to nature is a key factor when Church chose his colors for the painting. Church was in tune with nature and this sunset is an example of how he emulated the scenes he saw. The colors also add to Church’s message of nature’s sublimity. In particular, Church’s use of light asserts the meaning that wilderness is vast yet obscure, beautiful, but untouchable[2]. Like the positioning of the mountains, the use of light and dark, allows church to illuminate aspects of foreground he wanted to show and darken areas of the background that he wanted to make obscure.

Some who view this painting believe it has a message hidden within, separate from the idea of the sublime. In particular, some link the idea of the twilight or a transition in the wilderness, as America’s transition into the Civil War[3]. The painting was finished in 1860, right near the cusp of the Civil War. It was not a secret that people knew war was inevitable between the North and the South. Thus it is plausible to think that the transition of this wilderness scene into the night represents America’s transition into conflict.

By Thomas Williams, Marist ’17


Dunn, Sarah. “Depicting a Sublime Wilderness,” Art History. March 13, 2017.

Cole, Mark, “Twilight in the Wilderness: A Close Look at an American Masterpiece,” Cleveland Art . March 23rd, 2017.

[1] Mark Cole, “Twilight in the Wilderness: A Close Look at an American Masterpiece,” Cleveland Art , March 23rd, 2017,

[2] Sarah Dunn, “Depicting a Sublime Wilderness,” Art History, March 13, 2017,

[3] Mark Cole, “Twilight in the Wilderness: A Close Look at an American Masterpiece,” Cleveland Art , March 23rd, 2017,

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