Twilight in the Wilderness by Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic Edwin Church

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 162.6 cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art; Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 1965.233, www.clevelandart.org

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The Complexity of Land

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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.

 

References

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)

 


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