Here Frederic Edwin Church presents the viewer with a beautiful sunset over an expansive landscape. The bird perched on a branch at the centre left of the composition, directs the eye into dramatic recessions of space, from the broken tree in the foreground, to a river and forest in the middle distance, and then further to a far-off mountain range.
Working within the tradition of the Hudson River School, considered by some to be the first ‘truly American … school of painting’ that was undergirded by ‘a belief in natural religion’ (O’Toole 2005: 11), Church saw symbols of God’s presence embedded in the natural world, meaning his work often takes an allegorical tone. Further, the allegorical potential was heightened by the belief that the expansive and ‘pure’ nature being ‘discovered’ by European settlers was a gift from God.
The title of the work, in addition to describing this American landscape, seems also to evoke the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered. From this vantage point, the viewer joins the Israelites and stands in the liminality of Deuteronomy 8. If the painting helps us imagine what it was like for the Israelites to glance back at the wilderness that had been their ‘home’ for forty years, the setting sun visually reinforces a sense of ‘crossing over’: the closure of one chapter in preparation for the opening of a new one.
However, there is a complexity in how Church depicts humanity’s relationship to the land. There is no human presence in the landscape and the fallen trees and rocky outcrop in the foreground indicate impassability for the explorer, interpreted by some as representing Church’s anxiety about the impact of American over-expansion on nature’s purity (Wilton & Barringer 2002: 129).
This same complexity is evident in Deuteronomy 8. While land is a source of God’s provision (vv.7–9), it is also a means of discipline for unfaithfulness to God (vv.2–5). As the Israelites occupy the Promised Land, they sustain the covenant with God by remembering the wilderness. Conversely, they destroy the covenant by forgetting God’s provision, and are, in turn, destroyed (vv.19–20), ultimately losing the land.
Brueggemann, Walter. 1978. The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (SPCK: London)
Hansen O’Toole, Judith. 2005. Different Views in Hudson River School Painting (New York: Columbia University Press)
Howat, John K. 2005. Frederic Church (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Wilton, Andrew and Tim Barringer. 2002. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820–1880 (London: Tate Publishing)
8 “All the commandment which I command you this day you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers. 2And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. 3And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. 4Your clothing did not wear out upon you, and your foot did not swell, these forty years. 5Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. 6So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: 12lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. 19And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. 20Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.