Knaths first conceived of the motif of deer in a landscape around the late 1910s and early 1920s. He was inspired at this time by the countryside around Chicago and later Provincetown and expressed enthusiasm in his diaries about the wilderness and the cosmos. Frightened Deer in Moonlight (ca. 1932) is emblematic of the artist’s fascination with this theme. Knaths remained drawn to nature's mysteries throughout his life and held true to his belief that nature was the source of all art. Familiar with authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, and Blake, Knaths fervently believed in the spiritual qualities of the woodlands and wildlife around him.
Frightened Deer in Moonlight reflects Knaths's elaborate system of composing his painting and selecting a color scheme. Although his theories on color and design probably originated in his student years, it was not until the early thirties that he devised a system of relating spatial proportions and color values mathematically, using music theory as a model. His method is illustrated in Frightened Deer in Moonlight, which shows traces of a grid painted directly on the canvas. Knaths then drew a rough sketch and measured the spaces between the various elements in the composition. From this calculation he determined the ratio between these spaces and the color values to establish his palette. Despite his strict methodology and systems of execution, it is the spiritual quality of his canvases that make them successful.
Phillips admired paintings such as the Frightened Deer in Moonlight for their combination of abstracted landscape and expressive color and tonal values. In this work, Knaths integrated rich blues and purples with a dark calligraphic line to create a poetic image. Phillips described the setting: "The air of witchery pervading a night of frosty silence is captured by the moon-chilled colors. How this hush is broken is told by the nervous zigzags of the brush. We can all but hear the crackling sounds which have frightened the wild creatures of the wood."