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“Fiercely the red sun descending/Burned his way along the heavens” (work of art)

Artwork Info

Thomas Moran
American (born England)
33 3/8 x 50 1/16 inches (84.8 x 127.2 centimeters)


Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)

Object Number
American to 1910

Key Ideas about this Work of Art

  • This landscape painting depicts a dramatic sunset at the Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior, in Michigan. 
  • The painting’s title comes from two lines of The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This poem’s main character is Hiawatha, a Native American chief of the Ojibwa people. In the poem Hiawatha travels westward to fight Megissogwon, a magician who killed his great grandfather. 
  • Many 19th-century artists created works inspired by The Song of Hiawatha.
  • Artist Thomas Moran created a threatening nature scene in this painting. His work was inspired by The Slave Ship, a famous painting by Joseph M. W. Turner.
  • Moran was a landscape painter who often depicted romantic views of the American West. His work was inspired and influenced by that of Joseph Turner, an English landscape painter. Moran gained national recognition for his paintings of the Yellowstone region. He later joined other expeditions to the west. He made field sketches of the scenery during his travels and later developed them into paintings.
  • Moran painted in the era of North American colonialism. This term refers to Native Americans gradually being forced out of their homelands by White settlers. Most White Americans believed that Native Americans were uncivilized. They assumed that western lands were free for the taking. This attitude is evident in many American landscape paintings created during that time.

Learn More

Like many artists of the period, Moran was deeply inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). After traveling to Lake Superior’s Pictured Rocks to sketch where the story takes place, Moran created this dramatic maritime scene from the opening lines of Canto IX, which narrates the departure of Ojibwa chief Hiawatha westward toward the fiery sunset to avenge his ancestor’s death.

Meant to heroize Indigenous people, this fictional story ultimately perpetuated harmful stereotypes of the “vanishing” American Indian by promoting assimilation to white settler culture. Moran’s scene (and Longfellow’s poem) appropriates and mythologizes Indigenous themes to construct an epic national vision.

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  • A landscape painting of a sunset over a body of water with large, cresting waves. An arched rock formation on the horizon blends in with the bright colors and clouds in the sky. A group of white birds with black wingtips flies in the foreground, just above the surface of the water.

    “Fiercely the red sun descending/Burned his way along the heavens”