Hunter Mountain, Twilight

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Hunter Mountain, Twilight
Sanford Robinson Gifford
Oil on canvas
30 5/8 x 54 1/8 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

This image shows the Catskill Mountains region of New York State, a place untouched by battle. In the glowing, pastel-tinted sky, Hunter Mountain rises alongside a slender crescent moon, an evening star, and clouds. The sun and evening star set in the west behind the mountain. The farmhouse in the foothills of the mountains gives the painting a peaceful, domestic feeling. This is contrasted by the rows of tree stumps and scattered boulders in the foreground. In the midst of the beautiful natural landscape, these trees were cut down so that the cowherd at the center could raise cattle and tan the leather for profit.
Why paint this scene in 1866? Artist Sanford Robinson Gifford was a Union army veteran who had personally witnessed the war. One way of thinking about the sunset and the tree stumps in the painting is that they refer to the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. Just as the Northern men fighting in the war died for the sake of the Union, the trees were cut down for a larger cause: the settlement of the United States. The tree stump was also a common cemetery monument in nineteenth-century America, often used for the graves of young people who were “cut down” in the prime of life. Through his rows of grave-like trees, Gifford focuses not only on the recent war, but also shows the conflict between nature and the progress of American settlement and civilization.

1. After the Civil War, both Northerners and Southerners still felt the wounds of the conflict. How do you think paintings like this helped Americans move on from the war?

2. Compare this painting to Our Banner in the Sky, a painting about the beginning of the Civil War. Both of these paintings deal indirectly (or through a symbolic language of sunrises and sunsets, with tree stumps and other natural features) with the death of Americans in the Civil War. How do the moods of these paintings differ? Give examples.

Further reading:
Hucke, Matt and Ursula Bielski. Graveyards of Chicago: The People, History, Art, and Lore of Cook County Cemeteries. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1999.

Newberry Library. "Hunter Mountain, Twilight." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.

Swain, Craig. “90th Pennsylvania Volunteers.” The Historical Marker Database.

©Terra Foundation for American Art