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On view


Artist: Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826 - 1900)

Date: 1856
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original aesthetic style frame
Framed: 37 3/4 x 49 3/4 x 3 3/4in. (95.9 x 126.4 x 9.5cm)
Overall: 24 × 36in. (61 × 91.4cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'F.E. Church / 1856'
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 21
Label Text
The handsome, well-made frame, on the Church painting, made up of more than a dozen different decorative elements, and retaining its original finish, was probably made in the 1870s after a design by Church. His habit of designing frames for his own paintings is an important 19th century example of a practice that would become more common with artists in the early decades of the 20th century.

American frames of the post-Civil War era reflect the sophistication of that age. In this example, parallel rows of different-sized beads, moldings and coves create a glittering surface of highlights and shadows that mark the shapes which progress from the outer bead course to the inner sight edge. The features signifying that this frame was designed in the 1870s are the two wide flat planes incised with geometric C-scrolls, stylized leaves and bellflowers. Between these two flat sections is a deep cove decorated with acanthus leaves and more bellflowers on top of a stipple ground. Oil gilding was used on the decorative elements of the cove to create a matt finish. This surface contrasts with the bright gold finish on all the other sections of the frame, which was created with water gilding. Abrasion and wear reveal the gray clay bole that was applied to the frame before it was gilded.

There is an approximately twenty-year difference between the date of the frame and the painting it surrounds. The frame was probably put on the picture shortly before Church exhibited it at the 1879 exhibition of the Utica Art Association, where Helen E. M. Williams purchased it for the reported price of $2,000. Although there is no label on the frame itself, nor any documentary information in Church's personal archive indicating who fashioned this frame, it could have been made by one of the following New York City frame makers, artist material suppliers, or dealers that Church is known to have done business with, all of whom who were active in the late 1870s: the Beers Brothers, John B. Dubois, Theodore Kelley, Michael Knoedler & Co., or William Schaus.(1)

In certain cases, Church designed frames made of forms that were entirely unique. In other instances he merely had the frame assembled from moldings that were commercially available. Although some of the decorative details on this frame can also be found on other frames Church designed, there is no known frame with exactly the same design. One of the advantages of frames embellished with applied composition ornament is that the same forms could be economically reused. Church's use of such mass-produced ornament to create what appears to be a unique frame represents an innovative use of a product that was not intended for use in this fashion.

(1.) Alexander W. Katlan, "American Artists' Materials Suppliers Directory" Park Ridge, New Jersey: Noyes Press, 1987, pp. 16, 330-31.

Paul D. Schweizer
August 2010

Text Entries

Frederic Edwin Church, as his contemporaries knew very well, had “an eye for a sunset.”(1) From the earliest days of his career in the mid-1840s until the final years at his hilltop home, Olana, he constantly drew and sketched the twilight sky. Like his contemporary Henry David Thoreau, whose Journal abounds with evocative descriptions of sunrises and sunsets, Church never tired of nature’s daily pageant of light and color.

Hundreds of Church’s drawings and oil sketches survive in the collections of Olana and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, but in relatively few cases can we closely follow his progress from an initial pencil sketch, to a more elaborate oil study, to a finished painting. Sunset offers just such an opportunity. In a drawing inscribed “Mt Desert/Sep-1854/2nd Twilight,” Church recorded, with a few rapid pencil strokes, a view just north of Bar Harbor, looking westward across Hull’s Cove.(2) The scene includes low hills and a pair of sailboats at anchor, but the artist focused primarily on recording the rapidly changing hues of the sky. Color notations, with phrases such as “superb brilliant blue” and “brilliant splendid orange,” cover the sheet, providing guidance when Church later painted an oil sketch of the scene.(3) The small, intensely colored oil sketch is a faithful transcription of the initial study, retaining the basic configurations of land and sky, but bringing to life the colors only described in the drawing.

After completing the Mount Desert oil study, Church put it aside and did not take it up again until 1856.(4) And, when he did, as the basis for Sunset, he reused the twilight effect, but transformed the landscape into an inland lake scene, removing all indications of the coast and introducing glacial rocks, a rugged spruce, and a dramatic mountain in the distance. We do not know just when in 1856 Church created Sunset, but it was probably in the fall, after he and his friend, the writer Theodore Winthrop, had returned from a summer excursion to the interior of Maine.(5) The object of their journey, as Winthrop noted, was “to be somewhere near the heart of New England’s Wildest wilderness,” and their goal was “Katahdin—the distinctest mountain to be found on this side of the continent. . . .”(6) Church had visited the area before and had painted a major oil, Mount Katahdin (Yale University Art Gallery) in 1853. In that painting, however, Church’s youthful optimism transformed the rugged wilderness of the region into a pastoral landscape complete with the props of incipient civilization. Sunset presents a very different world, bringing the viewer to the farthest reaches (symbolized by the rugged dirt path) of man’s penetration into the primeval American landscape.

Church’s interest in portraying the American wilderness intensified during the late 1850s, and Sunset is a key picture in the sequence of images leading to his masterpiece of 1860, Twilight in the Wilderness (Cleveland Museum of Art). Like the latter, Sunset is an eloquent expression of two essential ingredients in the national identity—American space and American light. It is “a landscape of vigorous simplicity,”(7) to use Winthrop’s words, but one which nevertheless denies the viewer easy passage into the distance. Unlike Church’s earlier paintings, with their coherent flow of one zone of the landscape to the next, Sunset is deliberately challenging. The lake and heavily forested hills block terrestrial progress, and the viewer looks instinctively to the sky, where the ranks of receding clouds lead a headlong rush to the distant, Katahdin-like peak. We are thus at once made aware both of the vastness of American space through light and atmosphere and of its dense impenetrability through the physical realities of earthly nature.(8)



1. Theodore Winthrop, Life in the Open Air, and Other Papers (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), P. 9.

2. The drawing is owned by Olana (OL 1980.1448). “Second twilight” occurs after the sun has passed below the horizon, and it is then that some of the most intense sunset colors are seen. I am grateful to John Wilmerding for his help in identifying the site depicted in the drawing.

3. The oil study is also owned by Olana (OL 1981.72).

4. Church’s interest in such coastal Maine views had been strong earlier in the 1850s, but it waned during 1854-55, as he turned his attention to painting South American subjects.

5. David Huntington first suggested the connection between Sunset and this trip in his The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era (New York: George Braziller, 1966), pp. 73-78. As is the case with every student of Church’s work, I am much indebted to Huntington‘s insightful analysis of the artist.

6. Winthrop, p. 50.

7. Ibid., p. 75.

8. A more complete discussion of Sunset may be found in this writer’s Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), pp. 86-94. The earliest recorded exhibition in which Sunset appears was the Utica Art Association’s seventh exhibition in 1879. The painting was listed for sale, with a price of two thousand dollars. This strongly suggests that Church retained the painting for over twenty years—an unusual occurrence for a man whose work was much in demand. Additional evidence is provided by the frame, which is certainly original. Unlike the simpler moldings Church favored in the 1850s, Sunset has a more complex, decorated profile perfectly in keeping with the style of the 1870s. It is thus possible that the painting had never been framed before and that when Church sent it to the Utica exhibition he simply framed it in the current style.


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