Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Phenomenology of Twilight

A twilight landscape by 19th century Tonalist Alexander Wyant

Nebulous and uncharted, twilight is the interposition of the veil, a fluid borderland between light and darkness.

Twilight bears the same relation to daylight as poetry to prose. Its visual mode is indeterminacy, the elusive: objects softened to indistinct outlines, things half on their way to becoming thoughts.

Like all cosmic transitions, its realm is that of liminal experience, partaking of the timeless suspension between waking and sleep, the realm of daydream, reverie, and the lucid dreamer.

George Inness, Home of the Heron, 1890

Psychologically, the analogy is to the dissolution of concrete knowledge into emotion, but also speculation, uncertainty, intuition, the life of the unconscious. Twilight's ground isn't the "enlightenment" of rational, logical argument but the associative cognition of dreams.

I think that in historical Tonalism (American landscape painting from c. 1880 to c. 1920s) the twilight mood often corresponds (as in much of Innes's work) to a spiritual transformation of the visual world.

An Inness dusk, c. 1885

Certainly the attraction of these paintings has something to do with individuals' experience of these moods. The natural world found in Tonalist paintings exists within a settled and "cleared," fully "civilized" America such as we ourselves inhabit.

That is to say, the Tonalist twilight is a "mood" of the natural that remains available to us as direct experience-in-the-world, in contrast to the vanished views of unspoiled, majestic or pastoral wildernesses of the pre-Tonalist, pre-Inness, 19th century Hudson River School (c. 1830-1865).

Personally, I've spent uncounted hours since my teenage years gazing at the looming shadows of twilit trees and branches. I respond to these scenes on some kind of unconscious, symbolic/arhcetypal level charged with thought and emotion yet inaccessible to analysis.

Spring Dusk, Hollis, NH, 8 x 10, 2011

Even rural environments offer handholds for a similar psychological/emotional response. It isn't just vertical elements like buildings or trees, either, as proved out in contemporary painter Susan Holcomb's urban-cosmic "Nightscapes."

Astrum by Susan Holcomb


  1. Christopher, your painting Spring Dusk, Hollis, NH is really beautiful!

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