America’s poet, Walt Whitman, wrote a good many BIG poems – long, rambling, shout-it-out-loud poems proclaiming the BIG themes: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”!
All the more charming then to come across this very small, very quiet – yet brightly vivid – little poem:
A Prairie Sunset
Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,
The earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consign’d for once to colors;
The light, the general air possess’d by them—colors till now unknown,
No limit, confine—not the Western sky alone, the high meridian! North, South, all,
Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.
Whitman sings the colors of the sunset, “shot gold, maroon, violet”; he’s like a painter talking out loud as he chooses pigments from his color-box. As he gazes at the “dazzling” evening sky spreading over the plains, it seems to him the entire world, “earth’s whole amplitude,” is made of nothing but colors, all the universe “possessed by them.”
This is the dream of an artist intoxicated by color!
Ivan Aivazovsky, The Ninth Wave, 1850
And what colors! “Dazzling silver, emerald, fawn” – he has to give them the names of things in the world, because both color and world are melded into things never seen before, “colors till now unknown”!
And it isn’t just the Western sky anymore – it’s EVERYTHING: “North, South, all,/Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.”
Casper David Friedrich, Sunset, c. 1835
Poetry and painting: illuminating life, invoking wonder, reminding us that if we allow for it, ordinary things and fleeting moments can renew our faith in life and the world. Fighting the silent shadows to the last. Just like sunset over a prairie.
Want pro tips on painting sunsets? There’s a video for that from Carl Bretzke.
American Art from the Thyssen Collection
Thomas Cole, Cross at Sunset, ca. 1848 Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza
Madrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is exhibiting its treasure trove of American art from the 19th and 20th centuries in a show titled, aptly enough, American Art from the Thyssen Collection. Thomas Cole’s Cross at Sunset of 1848 is among the rarely (if ever) reproduced paintings owned by this museum. We’re sharing some images of this newly reemerging work this week.
It’s in some ways an unusual painting for Cole, in others completely typical. Cole became the father of American landscape painting but he trained in Britain and Germany, deeply influenced by European Romanticism’s tendency to imbue nature with drama, spirituality, and symbolic content. However, he was a meticulous realist, especially keen on including detailed textures – which is precisely what’s absent from this painting. At first glance, Cross at Sunset could be a compatriot of Georgia Okeefe!
In the paint,