Depicting a Sublime Wilderness

While reading Edmund Burke’s text, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” I was constantly recalling Frederic Edwin Church’s, Twilight in the Wilderness.  As Burke gives many detailed descriptions of what contributes to the creation of the sublime, I was unable to remove this image from my mind.  Church’s painting seems to strive to represent wilderness in all its possibilities; it is a depiction of the beautiful, vast, terrible, unknown, and “other” world that we discussed extensively in last week’s class.  While viewing Twilight in the Wilderness, I find myself trying to consolidate all of these descriptions and decipher how this particular wilderness is meant to be defined.  Are we, the viewers, meant to be inspired by, in awe of, separate from, a part of, or terrified of this scene, or are we simply meant to recognize it as all these things at once? Are we meant to see it in the light of our traditional notions of wilderness? Are we meant to see it as the sublime?  Because one of our traditional approaches toward wilderness is to view it as the sublime, I would like to reference Burke’s writings on the sublime in relation to Church’s painting.  Twilight in the Wilderness inspires many of the sensations that Burke discusses in relation to the sublime.  It seems to reference power, vastness, infinity, and obscurity, and in doing so exists as a piece that reinforces our conflicted and traditional concepts of wilderness.

First of all, Church’s painting inspires a sense of the sublime through his use of light and shadows as he creates a scene of the natural world.  His use of intense light and colors creates a view that illuminates a vast landscape, and at the same time, creates shadows that hint at the presence of an unknowable and therefore, unapproachable space.  His utilization of only one light source, the sun, creates a dramatic lighting situation that only allows partial illumination.  This approach hides information about the scene, and in turn, instills the notion that this is a place that is unknown and untouched.  Also, visual information is not only obscured because of cast shadows, but the infinite landscape is alluded to, but not visible because it is completely washed out in the brightness of the sun; the view is masked by both light and darkness.  His use of light establishes a dual meaning that asserts wilderness as vast yet obscure, as beautiful, but untouchable.  Church has effectively used light as a means to create a sense of the sublime.  For example, as Burke states in section fourteen, “With regard to light, to make it a cause capable of producing the sublime, it must be attended with some circumstances, besides its bare faculty of showing other objects.”  Burke is suggesting that light is most capable of creating the sublime when it is coupled with darkness, which is exactly what Church has done in his painting.

Furthermore, Church creates a sublime scene through his use of space and composition.  For example, as Church’s foreground once again alludes to a sense of obscurity and uneasiness with the depiction of starkly lit trees that begin to frame the scene, he also creates a sense of vastness as the landscape seems to continue infinitely into space.  The combination of towering trees in the foreground with endless illuminated space in the background appeals to our traditional notions of wilderness, and once again, act as visual aids to Burke’s description of the sublime.  When discussing the sublime in terms of the obscure and the vast, Burke says, “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. […] Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime.”  Twilight in the Wilderness exhibits both this sense of a greatness of dimensions as well as instills a sense of our ignorance of the vast landscape through the illusion of space it creates.  As the eye is pushed from the nearest objects of the scene to the diminishing, yet still arresting background of the landscape, the viewer may be encouraged to realize and ponder his/her scale in relation to, and knowledge of such a powerful view.  Church’s painting reinforces our traditional, or original, impression of what wilderness is; something separate and unknown, vast and beautiful, powerful and obscure.



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