Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880)

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880)

Second generation Hudson River School artist Sanford Robinson Gifford is renowned for his skill and mastery of rendering light and atmosphere. Raised in Hudson, New York, Gifford attended Brown University for two years before deciding to dedicate his life to art. By 1845 he was living in New York City studying drawing, perspective and anatomy under John R. Smith, and supplementing those lessons with classes at the Crosby Street Medical College and the National Academy of Design (NAD). His career began with a focus on portraiture, but it was his sketching trips through the Catskills during the summer of 1846 that inspired him to turn his attention to landscapes. Though he was not formally trained in landscape painting, Gifford had an innate talent. By 1847 his first landscape was exhibited at the NAD, and he would exhibit there almost annually throughout his career. By 1850 he was elected an Associate, and four years later he became a full Academician. 

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His first trip to Europe, in 1855, exposed him to the artists John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, both of whom were known to stress atmospheric effects in their work.  Gifford adopted these influences in a style now known as luminism. The author John I. H. Bauer defined luminism as a “concern with fleeting effects of atmosphere, with the momentary beauties of sunlight, mist or storm and with the transcription of light at specific times of day.” [1]  One of Gifford’s first canvases exhibiting this technique, Lake Nemi, was completed while abroad. This large painting with sunlight radiating throughout the canvas was exhibited at the National Academy shortly after its completion, and received great admiration.

Upon returning to the United States in 1858, Gifford settled in New York where he was one of the original members of the Tenth Street Studio Building. Fellow artists Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge, both of whom he met while abroad, also took studios there. Gifford continued to travel throughout New York and New England in search of subject matter, but would often paint the same scene at varying times of day, studying the effects of the changing sunlight. He believed that “landscape-painting is air-painting.” [2]  In 1861 his travels came to an end when he joined the Union Army as a corporal in the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia.

In 1868, Gifford traveled back to Europe, this time venturing through the Middle East. He returned by the summer of 1870 in time to join fellow artists John Frederick Kensett and Worthington Whittredge on a painting trip through the Rocky Mountains. Gifford then returned to his studio in New York City, where he created some of his most significant paintings. In 1877 he married Mary Canfield, but contracted malaria only three years later and passed away at the age of fifty-seven. As a founding member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gifford was honored with their first retrospective exhibition, held in 1881. The museum exhibited 160 paintings, and released a publication that catalogued all of the artist’s works, including over 700 landscapes. Gifford was highly regarded during his time, not only for his mastery in painting, but also for his disposition. In 1876, the Art Journal published the statement, “There is striking equality shown in the pictures of Sanford R. Gifford, which not only indicates his conscientiousness as a painter, but also the quiet and unassuming dignity of his character.” [3]  Today, his paintings hang in numerous institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago.

References: Falk, Who Was Who in American Art, 1999; Weiss, Ila, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford Robinson Gifford (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1987); The University of Texas Art Museum, Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) (Austin: University of Texas Art Museum, 1970); John I. H. Baur, “Early Studies in Light and Air by American Landscape Painters,” Brooklyn Museum Bulletin 9 (Winter 1948); George W. Sheldon, “How One Landscape-Painter Paints,” Arts Journal, III, 1877. 

[1] The University of Texas Art Museum, Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) (Austin: University of Texas Art Museum, 1970), 12.

[2] George W. Sheldon, “How One Landscape-Painter Paints,” Arts Journal, III, 1877, 284.

[3] The University of Texas Art Museum, Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) (Austin: University of Texas Art Museum, 1970), 12.

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