In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican president of the United States, when the country was in the grips of a secession crisis. And in that year, American artist Frederic Edwin Church set the sky ablaze in his painting “Twilight in the Wilderness”—a painting that many experts see as symbolizing the approaching Civil War, which began in 1861.
Church finished the painting on the eve of the Civil War, and the gathering storm clouds that he painted seem to signal that turbulent time. The sky resembles the dying embers of a fire taking its last breaths—aglow with reds, yellows, and blues. Setting behind a dramatic sea of clouds, the sun’s last rays shine onto the lake below and a rock formation in the foreground, showcasing Church’s impressive rendering of the wilderness that he was so famous for.
In his New York studio, Church composed the picture from the many plein-air paintings he’d completed of the wilderness near Mount Katahdin in Maine some two years before.
He regularly hiked into the wild, capturing the ever-changing vistas in his plein-air paintings. These studies proved invaluable in compiling his sublime, largely imagined, landscapes. Only someone who knew the wilderness well—how the light falls on the land, trees, and water—could compose such harmonious and believable landscape paintings.
Church developed his style under the direction of Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painters who is often referred to as the father of American landscape painting. Cole admired Church’s draftsmanship, exclaiming that he had “the finest eye for drawing in the world.”