Towards the end of his life Thomas Cole executed a final series of paintings on religious subjects known as The Cross and the World. In it, the artist – a pioneering landscape painter considered the founder of the Hudson River School – depicted a sublime vision of nature that became the vehicle for his quest for salvation and spiritual knowledge.
Cross at Sunset is not part of that series but is extremely close to it. It depicts an impressive cross in the foreground, to the left of which and some way away is a bell tower. Behind these two elements a valley recedes into the distance where mountains are outlined against the horizon. The light from the setting sun spreads out like a fan and assumes a fantastical character, establishing a dialogue with the cross in the foreground, which radiates its own light. Drama and theatricality are typical of Cole’s work, which generally aimed for a moralising effect. In addition, the fact that the painting is unfinished makes it possible to see the under-drawing and the orange toned ground that Cole applied in the lower part of the composition.