Robert S. Gifford (1840-1905)

Robert S. Gifford (1840-1905)

When one examines the landscapes and seascapes of Robert Swain Gifford, one can immediately appreciate the artist’s skill in draftsmanship, composition and coloration. An impression of the true versatility of this man, however, can hardly be obtained from viewing his paintings alone, as Gifford was an etcher, photographer, musician, linguist, literati, world traveler and naval architect. Although born into a nearly impoverished family on the tiny island of Nonamesset, one of the Elizabethan Islands that lie south of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Gifford acquired these diverse skills partly due to his innate talent, but also due to the active cultivation of the wealthy Swain family, the owners of the island. William W. Swain employed Robert’s father, and after Swain and his wife lost their young son, Robert, the Gifford family named their new infant Robert Swain in his honor. Mrs. Swain took an immediate liking to Robert Swain Gifford and continued to play an important role throughout his adult life.

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It was Mrs. Swain who encouraged Gifford to pursue his interests in fine art, often purchasing his work to financially prolong his efforts. As a young man, he studied painting with Dutch marine painter Albert Van Beest, who was then painting in New Bedford, Gifford’s home at the time. In 1864 he moved to Boston, listed himself as a marine painter in the City Directory, rented a studio on Washington Street, and thus officially began his painting profession. Continuing to advance his career, Gifford then moved to the larger city of New York, yet continued to visit southeastern Massachusetts nearly every summer thereafter.

An avid traveler, Gifford visited Canada, Egypt, Morocco, Italy, France, Spain, and England, in addition to his expeditions within the United States.  1869 he traveled to the west coast to make drawings and paintings for Picturesque America, a 48-part serial edited by William Cullen Bryant and published by D. Appleton between 1872 and 1874. Eleven engravings were made from his drawings and paintings of Oregon in the article “Up and Down the Columbia,” (vol. 2) and eight more were published to illustrate the story, “On the Coast of California” (vol. 24). In addition to his oils, watercolors and etchings, Gifford also published his photographs; in 1909 he produced Artwork of the State of Oregon.

In addition to his numerous commissions for publication and his awards for participation in such juried exhibitions as the National Academy of Design, Gifford was also a talented and popular teacher. From 1877 until 1896 he taught at the Cooper Union, acting as Head of the Women’s Art School in 1896 and then Director of the school from 1903 until his death. He continued to travel throughout his teaching career, and discovered a home base in the fashionable summer colony of Nonquitt in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, returning to New York each winter. Considered one of the most talented painters and etchers of his day, Gifford’s work can now be found at institutions throughout the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Butler Institute of American Art, among others.

References: Groce and Wallace; Mary Jean Blasdale, Artists of New Bedford: A Biographical Dictionary (New Bedford, MA: Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1990). Picturesque America, with introduction by William Cullen Bryant (NY: D. Appleton, 1872-74); Artists of the Pacific Northwest 1600-1970 , 1993; Elton W. Hall, “R. Swain Gifford,” American Art Review, 1974.

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