Sunlight (Setting Sun)

Artist: J. Francis Murphy
Sunlight (Setting Sun), a painting

J. Francis Murphy (1853-1921), Sunlight (Setting Sun), 1900, oil on canvas, 16 x 29 inches, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of John and Lisbeth Huish.

Commentary by Justin Kunz
Assistant Professor of Visual Arts

John Francis Murphy captures the coolness of descending evening as the orange sun filters weakly through a heavy haze of pale blues and pinks. He presents the distant tree line as a flat row of blue-gray and muted green patches behind an isolated copse that stands tall above the horizon. By analogy, the large cluster of trees in the middle ground also forms a single mass silhouetted against the last, diffuse rays of the westering sun, its edges presented as a softly rendered passage from subdued greens and violets to an expanse of creamy gray sky. Gray-green reflections in the pond reveal details broken intermittently by horizontal wavelets on the water’s surface. In the field, the color-shift from golden brown to cool greens reinforces the sensation of a weakly luminous sun and a transition of vegetation near the waters’ edge.

Neither a dazzling nor a dramatic scene, it is a quietly poignant end to a typical day, sensitively observed and delicately portrayed. Its most remarkable quality is its masterful restraint: the simultaneous modulation of hue temperature, value, and intensity without a hint of overstatement or affectation. By placing emphasis on the observed experience of an otherwise unspectacular moment in the life of an ordinary American landscape, Murphy evokes in viewers a sense of the subtle magic of every day—the commingling of physical and spiritual sensations, the extraordinary immediacy of what it feels like to be alive outdoors, absorbing the waning sun’s last gift of warmth as the final moments of daylight expire.

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