Cole painted this and its pendant Autumn Twilight, View of Conway Peak, New Hampshire while he was in the early stages of creating his monumental five-painting series The Course of Empire. That series traces the rise and fall of an imaginary civilization, and in this pair Cole prefigured the larger themes of the series, but he placed them in an unmistakably American context.
Cole exhibited the two smaller paintings together at the National Academy of Design in 1834, perhaps as a preview of his series. By contrast, Summer Twilight glows with a benign sunset. An ax-hewn stump at lower left signifies the coming of European "civilization," but here man and nature exist in pastoral harmony. The small homestead at the left and the log cabin on the shore at the right nestle comfortably into the scene, dwarfed by the magnificent expanse of water, mountains and sky. Sheep and cows graze, and the lone woodsman at the lower center pauses from his labors to appreciate the majesty of the sunset. This idealized vision is perfectly in keeping with Cole's The Arcadian or Pastoral State, which exalts the fleeting moment when man is in harmony with nature and has not yet overcome it - a moment that Cole saw passing from the American scene.
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