Sanford Robinson Gifford


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Painter. A landscape specialist, he took particular interest in effects of light and atmosphere. A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove) (Metropolitan Museum, 1862) summons to mind a valley in the Catskill Mountains, as Haines Falls glints in the far distance under a late afternoon sky. This extensive autumnal vista combines meticulous description of natural features with hazy golden light that unifies the scene without dissolving it. Offering an escape into nature's timeless perfection, the painting may have seemed a balm to its first viewers during the Civil War. Born in upstate Greenfield, Saratoga County, New York, Gifford moved as a small child with his family to Hudson, on the Hudson River south of Albany. In 1842 he enrolled at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, but left after three semesters to pursue an artistic career. In 1845 he settled permanently in New York, where he studied chiefly with London-born painter-printmaker John Rubens Smith (1775–1849), known for descriptively oriented topographical views as well as figural works. That summer Gifford set off on a sketching tour that took him all the way to Canada, setting a lifelong pattern of devoted nature study at firsthand. An admirer of Thomas Cole's work, Gifford gained recognition for Hudson River School paintings before departing in 1855 for Europe. During more than two years abroad, while following an extended circuit from London to Naples, he was on the move much of the time. A particularly indefatigable and attentive traveler, he studied the art of museums, sought out contemporary landscape paintings, and incessantly made sketches and notes that often informed subsequent paintings. His exposure to the work of English painter J. M. W. Turner decisively influenced the appearance of glowing atmospherics in his own work. However, American mid-century luminism provided homegrown support for this poetic aspect of Gifford's style. Like other New York landscapists, Gifford usually spent the summer months working in scenic Northeast locations. Even during intermittent National Guard duty in the Civil War, he made use of opportunities for sketching. In 1868 Gifford again sailed to Europe and remained abroad for more than a year, including five months in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece. Through the following decade, this excursion provided material for numerous paintings, including a group devoted to the picturesque lagoons of Venice and his last important work, The Ruins of the Parthenon (Corcoran Gallery, 1880). With Worthington Whittredge and John Kensett, he traveled to the Rocky Mountains in 1870. From there he accompanied a survey expedition through Wyoming and Utah. Four years later, he again journeyed west, continuing on through British Columbia to Alaska. Weakened by an illness during a trip to Lake Superior, he died shortly after returning to New York. Personally and professionally esteemed by the New York art community, Gifford was honored the year after his death by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first event of its kind there, his huge retrospective exhibition, accompanied by a detailed catalogue, set a precedent for such New York art world milestones.


Subjects: Art.

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