A Lake Twilight was purchased soon after its completion in early 1861 for the art collection of the Young Men’s Association of Troy, New York. The painting is listed as #233 in the Gifford Memorial Catalogue (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1881), 16 by 28 inches, sold in 1861 to the Troy institution but not traceable twenty years later. That upstate self-improvement organization, part of the athenaeum movement, was founded in 1835. It amassed a library, sponsored lectures and debates, and held annual art exhibitions, all necessitating fundraising that was supported by Gifford and other artists. The Gifford painting shown in their 1861 exhibition as “Sunset” was probably A Lake Twilight. Other works of his had been acquired there in 1859 and 1860 (Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford, Newark, Delaware, 1987, p. 86; Kevin J. Avery and Franklin Kelly, eds., Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, New York, 2003, p. 117).
Two known paintings by Gifford may be considered preliminary to the twilight painting. A Mountain Lake at Sunset, 7 by 12 inches (MC 493), at the New Britain Museum of Art in Connecticut, retains elements of Indian Summer imagery: a central iconic mountain beyond water and forested foothills, doubled in reflection; and a wigwam and its presumed occupant beaching a canoe in the left foreground, derived from Gifford’s 1859 drawings of the Micmacs of Nova Scotia. The vista may be a recollection of the double peaked Vermont mountain, Camel’s Hump, viewed from across Lake Champlain, an area Gifford had explored in 1858. In this painting, however, the mountain is darkened to cobalt blue in near-silhouette against a transitional twilight sky, the sun just disappearing behind a distant peak toward the right. The sky, pale azure at the upper edge blending to yellow towards the obscured horizon, is energized by horizontal streaks of pink-purple clouds fading in the radiance, while pink-lit, purple toned cloud puffs rise in response to the mountain contour.
Directly preparatory to A Lake Twilight is a painting called Twilight Mountain at the Lorenzo State Historic Site in Cazenovia, New York. As an inscription on the verso identifies the work as a Christmas gift of 1860, it was most likely painted not long after Sanford’s visit to his ailing brother in Wisconsin that September. Almost as large as the final version, 15⅞ by 21¾ inches, its squarer format and looser brushwork project immediacy, as does the replacement of the nostalgia-laden Native American staffage with the contemporaneity of a white-shirted hunter loading a deer carcass into his bateau in the foreground—an activity in which the artist may have engaged, possibly accompanied by his early camping companion, Charles. While a ruddy luminosity subsumes details on the mountain side, red highlighted trees on the middle-distant shore contract the space. A repoussoir of dead tree trunks at the left and a bristling fallen trunk at the bottom edge create a tactile visual barrier to the evoked experience.
A comparison of the preliminary study with the resolved imagery of A Lake Twilight further reveals the artist’s process and intention. The lurid coloring of the study is now modified as a more subtle mixture of warmth and coolness to capture a fleeting light-moment. Toward the right, warm white light of the just-set sun, thickly painted, is tenderly reflected by small cloud streaks, their impasto texture catching actual light to intensify the effect. The sky, deepened to grayed azure at the left, fades in response to the white effulgence, with the pale salmon-colored horizontal cloud-bar bisecting the peak comparably affected. An elegant contour refines the shape of the double-humped mountain, its rightmost peak curving in response to the brilliant light. Despite the transformation, an old inscription on the stretcher, not in Gifford’s hand, identifies the view as “Twilight in the Green Mountains, Vt.,” possibly confirming the Camel’s Hump identification. Momentarily affected by the dazzling radiance, the mountain peak glows light salmon above gray-purple shadow. In the foothills, a few black conifers and red-orange highlights on scattered trees evoke the dense forest submerged in purplish-brown gloom. The watery reflection doubles the dark warm tones of mountain and hills, then the sky’s gray-blue, with white containing hints of yellow and salmon echoing the light drama in the right foreground. The space is magnified in breadth and depth, the far shore widened to occupy the more horizontal format and its recession exaggerated through adjustments of scale and tonal modulation. Highlights are now picturesquely concentrated on the foreground, white and salmon touching rocks and a birch tree that replaces some of the bare trunks of the study’s repoussoir; and access to the hunter has been cleared. Juxtaposed to the substance and weight of the foreground, the more tonally unified, deeply colored aerial distance is separated as a realm of beauty and ideality—a memory, perhaps, and a welcoming escape.
That this painting may have been closely related to a lost National Academy exhibition piece of 1859, A Sunset in the Wilderness, an earlier moment, is suggested by a description of the latter as "gorgeous in color, the western sky filled with golden light, the mountains bathed in the gloom of the coming darkness, and the rosy tints reflected from the brilliant clouds, and the deep blue of the sky above, are very happily brought down into the soft verdure and the quiet waters of the foreground" (“Exhibition at the Academy of Design: Second Article,” New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, May 17, 1859, p. 2).
Another observer commented, Gifford’s “pictures are remarkable for expression, a quality that we so often miss in the most elaborate and finished productions” ("Galleries of the Academy of Design,” Manufacturers and Farmers Journal, Providence, Rhode Island, May 9, 1859, p. 2).
Gifford’s twilight imagery at the brink of the Civil War culminated in the huge, for Gifford, Twilight in the Catskills (Fig. 1), 27 by 54 inches, at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. The impact of its size, wide format, and dramatic effect of colored light created a sensation at the 1861 National Academy Annual, widely recorded. Its heavily clouded upper sky, stained dark red by the afterglow and punctuated with red-orange cloud-dashes, looms over a narrower band of luminous orange containing yellow radiance at its center. A distant string of mountains is plunged into near-blackness, its forms barely discernable in the dim red light. Bare dead trees bracket the panorama, black lines against the sky. In the gorge below the vantage point, brilliant reflected sky light snakes along a waterway into the inky distance.
While the Catskills painting was Gifford’s most dramatic twilight image, reactions to it suggest the impact of similar contemporary imagery, fraught with emotion, including A Lake Twilight. At a preview exhibition of the Catskills painting one reviewer commented, “the luminous sky, empurpled hills, and finely glowing sentiment of the whole, indicate that the artist of this picture has a power of color-treatment that has been partially latent in previous efforts” (“The Artists’ Reception at the Studio Building,” World, March 7, 1861, p. 5). When shown at the National Academy, Twilight in the Catskills was proclaimed “the representative landscape of the year.”
"Nothing approaching it in power, in a certain volcanic intensity…is to be found in the exhibition…The picture unites many of the elements essential to a grand and powerful interpretation of one of those capricious moods in which Nature sometimes indulges. The sunset is not an average sunset. The royal purple of the hillsides is not their habitual evening garb. The light which the stream reflects is ghastly…Even the dead golden tinge which kindles upon the distant tree tops, and glimmers through the brooding purple of the twilight, has about it something mysterious and alien…These are the exceptional moods which Nature delights to talk of, and it seems to us that Mr. Gifford has hit upon and reproduced such a one. His work…could hardly be more powerful or imply a more thorough mastery of the resources of the palette" (“Fine Arts: National Academy of Design,” World, April 6, 1861, p. 3).
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