Published: March 23, 2004
Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), a masterful Nineteenth Century landscape painter and member of the Hudson River School of painting, is the subject of this splendid, overdue retrospective. Gifford is not as well known as many of his Hudson River contemporaries, due in part to the smaller size of his luminous pictures and the fact that he died at the height of his powers at age 57.
In fact, as this exhibition documents, Gifford was an innovative, original landscapist, whose use of color and atmosphere set him apart from his colleagues. Utilizing fluid brushstrokes and a disciplined palette of pale blues, greens, roses and yellows, he captured the effects of light on a variety of settings. As critic-historian Henry T. Tuckerman observed in 1866 of Gifford’s works, “they do not dazzle, they win; they appeal to our calm and thoughtful appreciation; they minister to our most gentle and gracious sympathies, to our most tranquil and congenial observation.”
Often paying homage to the sanctity of the American wilderness, Gifford painted not only the natural world, but also how a viewer perceives it through layers of atmosphere and light. As his friend and fellow artist John F. Weir put it, in Gifford’s art “a veil is made between the canvas and the spectator’s eye – a veil that corresponds to the natural veil of the atmosphere…the object itself is of secondary importance.”
In these contexts, Gifford made special contributions to American art of his century and deserves the recognition this retrospective is bound to engender.
American attitudes toward nature fairly early in the Nineteenth Century were significantly influenced by the writings of such luminaries as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, who extolled in the wonders and beauty of the domestic landscape. They were abetted by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic E. Church, Jasper F. Cropsey, Gifford and other painters of what became known as the Hudson River School. Today, Gifford remains one of the most talented, but least known, of these titans of our art.
Beginning with Cole in 1825 and continuing to the end of the 1870s, Hudson River School painters created dramatic, often sweeping depictions of nature and subjects ranging from sublime views of the wilderness and towering mountains to pastoral scenes and allegorical pictures carrying moral messages. At the height of the movement in the 1840s, their canvases were seen as celebrating the presence of God in nature. Consistent with concepts of Romanticism, they made the American landscape a source of pride and an economic resource, growing out of divine inspiration.
One of the Hudson River School’s most interesting figures, Gifford was born at Greenfield, in Saratoga County, N.Y., one of 11 children of Elihu and Eliza Starbuck Clifford. In 1824, the family moved to Hudson, N.Y., where the father owned a successful iron foundry and became a bank president.
While Gifford was growing up in prosperous circumstances in Hudson, just across the Hudson River in Catskill, Cole was creating art that inspired Gifford’s artistic ambitions. Young Gifford was the only Hudson River School painter who was actually born in the area that gave the movement its name, and the only one who went to college.
Gifford entered Brown University in 1842, but remained there for only three semesters because he had decided to become a painter. Over the next few years he studied in New York and Hudson, honing basic skills and being exposed to Cole’s work. In the middle and late 1840s, inspired by Cole’s example, Gifford traveled extensively in the Catskills and the Berkshires, sketching and experimenting with painting techniques.
Moving to New York in 1847, the 24-year-old showed his first canvas, “Lake Scene, on the Catskills,” in the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition. Gifford’s growing reputation as a skilled landscapist was reflected in his election as an associate of the National Academy in 1851 and as an academician in 1854.
Gifford evolved his mature style during his first visit to Europe in 1855-1857, where he visited museums and major cities, communed with other artists and prepared paintings in England and on the continent. It was, writes Heidi Applegate in her informative catalog chapter, “the standard Grand Tour.”
Gifford was particularly influenced by the color and light in the paintings of British titan J.M.W. Turner that he studied in London, and discussed with John Ruskin, the influential critic and Turner champion. When Gifford expressed concern about the manner in which Turner took “liberties” with reality, Ruskin responded that Turner “treated his subject as a poet, and not as a topographer; that he painted the impression the scene made upon his mind, rather than literal scenes.” Observes Kelly, “As he matured as a landscape painter, that was precisely what Gifford himself would strive to do.”
Later, in Italy, where he spent time in the company of fellow painters Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge, Gifford created the first of what he called his “chief pictures.” The largest canvas of his career and his most significant to date, “Lake Nemi” (1856-57), measures 395/8 by 60 inches and demonstrates characteristics of his best work. It offers a panoramic view of terrain around a lake, with a large villa and a few people to the right, all filtered through color-saturated light and atmosphere. The Turneresque use of the radiant light of a setting sun to suffuse the composition became a frequent Gifford device.
Writes curator Avery in the exhibition catalog, “Lake Nemi” is “one of his strongest compositions and perhaps the richest tonally of all the sun paintings that would come to represent his accomplishment.” The picture was warmly received when displayed at the National Academy of Design. The New York Times critic pronounced it “a decidedly vigorous and noble painting.” This work is now in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art.
Returning to the United States in 1857, Gifford took a studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building, which he retained to the end of his life. Extensive travels in the northeast soon led to major landscapes.
A high point of the exhibition, “Mansfield Mountain” (1859), is a wonderfully atmospheric view of prominent mountain peaks in Vermont’s Green Mountains, with two men in the foreground starting a campfire. Critics labeled it “poetical” and praised its atmospheric effect when it was exhibited at the National Academy. It is in the Manoogian Collection.
In “The Wilderness” (1860) from the Toledo Museum’s holdings, Gifford focused on a single mountain in the distance, with a tranquil lake in the foreground, all enveloped in a warm, glowing atmosphere. A Native American woman holding her papoose to the left watches her husband paddling across the placid water to their tepee. Bathed in soft golds and pinks, this dream-like composition conveys the palpable hush of evening in New England.
Although the painting probably does not depict a specific mountain, Avery speculates that it might have been based on sketches of Maine’s Mount Katahdin that Gifford could have seen in Church’s studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building.
It appears that Gifford’s “A Lake Twilight” (1861) was inspired by Church’s celebrated “Twilight in the Wilderness” (1860). The latter, a spectacular sunset view of unspoiled American terrain, is widely regarded as a foreboding reflection on the looming Civil War.
In his canvas, probably set in the Green Mountains, Gifford employed a rich, sharp palette to capture a panoramic scene at twilight. The hunter in the lower right arranging in the bottom of his canoe the deer he has shot gives this picture a touch of harshness and foreboding.
As war approached, Gifford returned to the landscape of his native state, especially the Catskill region and the less familiar Adirondack Mountains. By this time, the Catskills had become an important tourist destination, spurred by improved roads and accommodations and the area’s proximity to New York City.
Adapting the light and atmospheric style he had developed in Italy, Gifford executed some of his most captivating canvases of the region in memorable pictures such as “A Mist Rising at Sunset in the Catskills,” circa 1861, (a small but particularly beautiful sketch), “A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove),” 1862, and “The Catskill Mountain House,” 1862.
Somber, dark and brooding images like “A Coming Storm” (1863/1880) and “Hunter Mountain, Twilight” (1866) may well reflect the national mood of turmoil and angst growing out of the bloody Civil War.
At the outbreak of hostilities, Gifford joined the Seventh Regiment of New York’s National Guard and sailed to Washington, where he was quartered among troops assigned to defend the nation’s capital. He later served in Virginia and Maryland during his three tours of duty, 1861-1863.
Gifford’s four wartime paintings were based on his personal observations as a soldier. Painted a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of the war, “Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Md., in July 1863” (1864) records myriad activities in a large Union encampment. In the sunlit foreground, guardsmen go about such daily routines as writing letters, talking, sleeping, cooking, eating and hanging wash, under the watchful eyes of sentries on the peripheries. In the middle distance, soldiers wash laundry in a steam, and in the far distance, under glowering mountains, a line of Union forces moves along a road.
Ever the landscape painter, Gifford’s composition, says Avery, “as much describes the panorama of the military campaign as it details the world of the soldier…The viewer witnesses the spreading of he sun’s providential light over the landscape and its Union occupants, and, in the background, the registering of its glinting reflections on the host of Union infantry and wagon trains winding their way southward into the mountains.”
This grand picture and the equally evocative Civil War image of a sentry on duty, “Baltimore, 1862 – Twilight” (1862, not in the exhibition) are housed in Manhattan’s historic Seventh Regiment Armory.
At the conclusion of his last tour of duty with the National Guard, Gifford and his regiment were dispatched to New York City to put down draft riots that raged in July 1863. It was the only time he fired his gun in action.
About the time he left the military, the artist learned that his brother, Edward, a major in the 128th New York Regiment, had died in Louisiana after escaping from a Confederate prison camp and swimming across the Mississippi River. “[T]he events of the summer,” writes Kelly in the catalog, “were devastating enough for Gifford…to end his soldiering for good.”
Added to the exhibition in Fort Worth is an important and interesting painting just acquired by the Amon Carter Museum from Berry-Hill Galleries in New York. “The View from Eagle Rock, New Jersey” (1862), a 10 by 20 inch canvas, has been out of public view for many years. It was likely done for Llewellyn Solomon Haskell, a pharmaceutical magnate who built a rustic home atop Eagle Rock, a mountain offering a panoramic of the land that became Llewellyn Park in West Orange.
This residential park, the first suburban housing development in America, was planned by Haskell in collaboration with renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis. The view from Haskell’s property, as immortalized in Gifford’s dramatically hued picture, was regarded in the artist’s day, as it is now, as among the most scenic in the country. “The scene,” says Amon Carter curator of paintings and drawings Patricia Junker, “represents Gifford’s ideal of humans living in harmony with nature.”
During a summer sketching tour of New England in 1864, Gifford followed in the footsteps of Cole and Church in visiting Mount Desert Island in Maine. While there he made sketches that culminated in the standout canvas, “The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine” (1864-65). Painter Jervis McEntee, who accompanied Gifford to Maine, was formerly thought to be the artist depicted, but Avery argues that it is Gifford himself.
At any rate, in spite of the drama of the setting and the grand panorama of nature it presents, the focus of the painting is on the painter at work, surrounded by the tools of his trade. “By locating himself in the field of vision, and by showing himself painting the scene that lies before him,” says Avery, “Gifford acknowledged both the primacy of the natural world as inspiration, and the centrality of the artist as its interpreter.” This outstanding painting is from the collection of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr.
The artist returned to Maine in 1879 at the invitation of Church, who had bought property on Lake Millinocket with a view of Mount Katahdin, the state’s highest peak. In Gifford’s tiny, evocative canvas, “Mount Katahdin from Lake Millinocket” (1879), two canoes glide across the blue water of the lake with the lofty, snow-capped mountain towering in the distance.
In the wake of the Civil War, rising national affluence, increased foreign travel and growing interest in paintings of overseas landscapes encouraged Gifford to take his second and final trip abroad. In 1868-1869, in addition to revisiting Italy, he traveled to Greece, Syria, Egypt and Turkey, painting as he went.
In these works he gave full expression to his predilection for light and color, incorporating facets of Turner’s scenic and visionary manner. Among the highlights on view in the current show are views of Lake Como, Lake Maggiore and Venice in Italy and of the Bosphorus and Constantinople (Istanbul) in Turkey.
Gifford’s style, observes Applegate, was “brilliantly suited to portraying the East.” A good example is his most ambitious Egyptian painting, “Siout, Egypt” (1874), from the National Gallery collection. It offers a sun-filled view of the approach to the historic town known today as Aysut, located on an extensive plain below the Libyan hills.
In a remarkably precise yet atmospheric composition, Gifford delineated such features as the domes and minarets of the town, fields of grain, a tent with horses and sheep, a fountain, figures walking and riding on camels on a winding road and yellow cliffs in the background. “The whole,” as the artist described it, “glowing and gleaming under the low sun.”
In 1870, Gifford made a trip to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains with painters John F. Kensett and Whittredge, and then explored Wyoming with Ferdinand V. Hayden’s government survey party. Particularly memorable from this tour is “Valley of the Chug Water, Wyoming Territory” (1870), a small painting that immortalizes the vast landscape around an outcropping of crenellated rock, whose enormous size is documented by the tiny figure of a man standing next to it. This grand work is owned by the Amon Carter.
In 1874, Gifford again headed west, visiting the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska. On view are two fine paintings of Mount Rainier in what was then the Washington Territory; they convey the artist’s admiration for this dramatic, snow-clad, volcanic peak towering over a serene lake.
In the last two decades of his life, when not serving in the Civil War or traveling abroad or in the West, Gifford roamed the northeast and middle Atlantic states. Included in the exhibition are lovely evocations of Lake George, views of the mighty Hudson and its marshy banks, dramatic Adirondack and Catskill mountainscapes, a warm rendering of Kauterskill Falls, seascapes off the Massachusetts coast and beach scenes ranging from Fire Island, N.Y., to Long Branch, N.J.
Over the years Gifford frequently depicted the Palisades, the dark, almost perpendicular cliffs of bare rock that define much of the Hudson River’s New Jersey side. In his culminating portrayal, “Sunset over the Palisades on the Hudson River” (1879), the rugged river bank and placid river dotted with sailboats are bathed in the radiance of a mellow sunset.
Gifford’s last important painting and one he considered the crowning achievement of his truncated career was “Ruins of the Parthenon” (1880). Based on detailed drawings made on site in 1869, the painting was, according to the artist, “not a picture of a building but a picture of a day.”
Gifford hoped “Ruins of the Parthenon” would find a home in an American public museum. His wish was fulfilled, posthumously, when it was purchased by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1881 for $5,100 – at the time the highest price ever paid for a Gifford work.
By most accounts, Gifford was a simple, unselfish, reticent and generous character. “Though he was well-to-do, he shunned luxury or display and lived in an almost ascetic manner,” according to contemporary art critic William Howe Downes. His chief recreation, said Downes, was fishing, seeking out remote waters from the Adirondacks, Catskills and Maine coast to the Midwest and Alaska.
Gifford did not marry until 1877, when he was 54. Three years later, his health began to fail and on the advice of his physician he went to the Lake Superior region to recuperate. When his condition worsened, he returned to New York, where he died of pneumonia. He was only 57 years old and at the top of his game.
In 1870, Gifford had joined with other artists and civic leaders in founding New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Upon his death, he was honored with the Met’s first monographic retrospective and a memorial catalog of his paintings.
The 274-page exhibition catalog includes 237 illustrations, 81 in full color. The book features essays by Avery, Kelly, Applegate (a doctoral candidate at Columbia University) and Harvey (Luce Center curator at Smithsonian American Art Museum). There is a detailed chronology and a selected bibliography. Published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, the volume sells for $60 (hardbound) and $40 (softcover).
The Amon Carter Museum is at 3501 Camp Bowie Boulevard. For information, 817-738-1933 or www.carter-museum.org. The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets at Constitution Avenue NW in Washington. For information, 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov.
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