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Sanford Robinson Gifford

 (1823 - 1880)
Sanford Robinson Gifford was active/lived in Massachusetts, New York.  Sanford Gifford is known for landscape, marine, and portrait painting-luminism.

Sanford Robinson Gifford

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Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Sanford Robinson Gifford
Known for realistic, refined depictions of 19th-century American landscapes, Sanford Gifford used light as a technique to convey emotions in a way that made him one of the country's leading luminists.  His mature style was a balancing of exacting detail of forms with a sense of atmosphere that often sacrificed topographic details. He finished his canvases by using multiple layers of translucent varnish.

Early in his career, he was a portraitist, but in the summer of 1846, a trip to the Berkshire Hills and Catskill Mountains combined with his admiration for the painting of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole inspired him to return to the freedom of landscape work.  Gifford, like many of his peers, understood the spiritual inspiration viewers found in the dramatic vistas of landscape, but he was not as committed to these theories as many of them.  However, most of his paintings have luminous qualities with brilliant light contrasted against strong shadows.

He was born in Greenfield, New York and was raised in Hudson, New York, the son of a wealthy industrialist.  He attended Brown University for two years but left to devote himself to a career in art and went to New York City to study figure painting with watercolorist John Rubens Smith.  He stayed in New York until 1855.

During the summers of 1846, he went on many walking tours through the Catskill and Berkshire Mountains, and completed many paintings from his sketches.  These ventures combined with his great admiration for Thomas Cole led him to devote himself to landscape painting, but he avoided the prevalent heroic and religious subjects, imported from Europe.  From his sketching in New Hampshire and Maine, he sometimes included Indians in canoes and teepees.

In 1855, he traveled in Europe and was exposed to the French Barbizon painters and was influenced in England by Joseph Turner's use of color, which encouraged Gifford to experiment with a wide range of colors.  However, he regarded the Barbizon painters as sloppy and thought that Turner overdid the effects of dissolving light.  In Italy, he traveled with American landscapist Albert Bierstadt.

In 1861, he enlisted in the Seventh Regiment of the New York State National Guard after the attack on South Carolina's Fort Sumter in April of that year.  During his service, he did many paintings expressing a yearning for a quiet, peaceful place and then after the war, was a part of the U.S. Geological Survey with Hayden to southern Wyoming.  He then returned to Europe until 1879.  In 1880, the year of his death, he went to the Colorado Rockies with Worthington Whittredge and John Kensett.

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Sanford Robinson Gifford
Kevin Avery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art along with Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery have worked together to produce the definitive exhibition on this American artist.

Avery wrote: "While Gifford was a great traveler, it was only in the last few years of his life that he painted the shores of nearby Long Island.  An earlier phase of his career had been devoted to the New Jersey shoreline, where he enjoyed the "bare, solitary, vast elemental nature" of the shoreline.  Evidently he found something similar on Long Island, as he sought out only the most secluded of spots, places at dawn or dusk when only a few fishermen might have been around."

A critic of his day, Henry Tuckerman once wrote about Gifford's work saying, "they appeal to our calm and thoughtful appreciation; they minister to our gentle and gracious sympathies."  While others who wrote about Long Island preferred go on and on about the endless procession of inbound waves, Gifford opted for a different mode, instead he shows the subdued side of nature in which the viewer can take serene pleasure in a quiet moment all the while conveying the vastness around us.

Alexander Boyle, who was featured on the television show "America's First River, Bill Moyers on the Hudson.  Boyle worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the Assistant Director of a film, "American Paradise, the World of the Hudson River School" and from 1988 to 2001 was Vice-President of Godel & Co. Fine Art in New York where he bought, sold and wrote about the artists of the Hudson River School, American marine painting, and American Impressionism.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, II
Sanford Robinson Gifford (July 10, 1823 - August 29, 1880) was an American landscape painter and one of the leading members of the Hudson River School. Gifford's landscapes are known for their emphasis on light and soft atmospheric effects, and he is regarded as a practitioner of Luminism, an offshoot style of the Hudson River School.

Not to be confused with artist Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905), no apparent relation.

Gifford was born in Greenfield, New York[2] and spent his childhood in Hudson, New York, the son of an iron foundry owner. He attended Brown University 1842-44, where he joined Delta Phi, before leaving to study art in New York City in 1845. He studied drawing, perspective and anatomy under the direction of the British watercolorist and drawing-master, John R. Smith. He also studied the human figure in anatomy classes at the Crosby Street Medical college and took drawing classes at the National Academy of Design.[3] By 1847 he was sufficiently skilled at painting to exhibit his first landscape at the National Academy and was elected an associate in 1851, an academician in 1854. Thereafter Gifford devoted himself to landscape painting, becoming one of the finest artists of the early Hudson River School.

Lake Scene - 1861Like most Hudson River School artists, Gifford traveled extensively to find scenic landscapes to sketch and paint. In addition to exploring New England, upstate New York and New Jersey, Gifford made extensive trips abroad. He first traveled to Europe from 1855 to 1857, to study European art and sketch subjects for future paintings. During this trip Gifford also met and traveled extensively with Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge.

In 1858, he traveled to Vermont, "apparently" with his friend and fellow painter Jerome Thompson. Details of their visit were carried in the contemporary Home Journal. Both artists submitted paintings of Mount Mansfield, Vermont's tallest peak, to the National Academy of Design's annual show in 1859. (See "Mt. Mansfield paintings controversy" below.) 'Thompson's work, Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain, is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York,' according to the report.

Thereafter, he served in the Union Army as a corporal in the 7th Regiment of the New York Militia upon the outbreak of the Civil War. A few of his canvases belonging to New York City's Seventh Regiment and the Union League Club of New York[1] are testament to that troubled time.

During the summer of 1867, Gifford spent most of his time painting on the New Jersey coast, specifically at Sandy Hook and Long Branch, according to an auction Web site. "The Mouth of the Shrewsbury River," one noted canvas from the period, is a dramatic scene depicting a series of telegraph poles extending into an atmospheric distance underneath ominous storm clouds.

Another journey, this time with Jervis McEntee and his wife, took him across Europe in 1868. Leaving the McEntees behind, Gifford traveled to the Middle East, including Egypt in 1869. Then in the summer of 1870 Gifford ventured to the Rocky Mountains in the western United States, this time with Worthington Whittredge and John Frederick Kensett. At least part of the 1870 travels were as part of a Hayden Expedition, led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden.

Returning to his studio in New York City, Gifford painted numerous major landscapes from scenes he recorded on his travels. Gifford's method of creating a work of art was similar to other Hudson River School artists. He would first sketch rough, small works in oil paint from his sketchbook pencil drawings. Those scenes he most favored he then developed into small, finished paintings, then into larger, finished paintings.

Gifford referred to the best of his landscapes as his "chief pictures". Many of his chief pictures are characterized by a hazy atmosphere with soft, suffuse sunlight. Gifford often painted a large body of water in the foreground or middle distance, in which the distant landscape would be gently reflected. Examples of Gifford's "chief pictures" in museum collections today include:

Lake Nemi (1856-57), Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
The Wilderness (1861), Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
A Passing Storm (1866), Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
Ruins of the Parthenon (1880), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

On August 29, 1880, Gifford died in New York City, having been diagnosed with malarial fever. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City celebrated his life that autumn with a memorial exhibition of 160 paintings. A catalog of his work published shortly after his death recorded in excess of 700 paintings during his career.

Between 1955 and 1973, Gifford's heirs donated the artist's collection of letters and personal papers to the Archives of American Art, a research center which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2007, these papers were digitally scanned in their entirety and made available to researchers as the Sanford Robinson Gifford Papers Online.

[Gifford painted some 20 paintings from the sketches he did while in Vermont in 1858. Of these, Mount Mansfield, 1858 was the National Academy submission in 1859, and another painted in 1859, Mount Mansfield, Vermont,"came in 2008 to be in the center of a controversy over its deaccession by the National Academy in New York. The controversy had been reported in December, saying that the sale of paintings to cover operating expenses was against the policy of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which organization in turn was asking its members to "cease lending artworks to the academy and collaborating with it on exhibitions." The report also said the 1859 painting in question was "donated to the academy in 1865 by another painter, James Augustus Suydam."

Amongst much more detail about on the de-accession, a later Times report said that the National Academy had sold works by Thomas Eakins and Richard Caton Woodville in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, according to David Dearinger, a former curator. "When the academy later applied to the museum association for accreditation, Mr. Dearinger recalled, it was asked about the Woodville sale and promised not to repeat such a move," the Times reported. News of the sale was originally broken, as reported in the Times, by arts blogger Lee Rosenbaum. As cited by Rosenbaum, her original story, with additional details on other contemplated sales by the Academy, ran December 5. The Times did subsequently report on the other contemplated sales, without credit to Rosenbaum.


Biography from Spanierman Gallery
Sanford Gifford was one of the outstanding members of the 19th-century landscape movement in American art. Following on the heels of the early Hudson River artists, Thomas Doughty, Asher B. Durand, and Thomas Cole, a second-generation of artists including Gifford, John Kensett, and Martin Johnson Heade developed their styles into a landscape of mood and serenity, now known as luminism.

Gifford was born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, New York, the son of a wealthy industrialist. Gifford grew up in Hudson, New York, across the river from the Catskill home of his idol, Thomas Cole. The artist attended Brown University for two years but, soon after leaving the school, decided to devote his full attention to art.

In 1845, Gifford went to New York City to study with John Rubens Smith, an accomplished drawing master and author of "A Key to the Art of Drawing the Human Figure (183l)." Gifford studied drawing, perspective and anatomy with Smith, supplemented by drawing from casts and from life at the National Academy of Design. Up to this time, his training was in figural work but, after a sketching trip to the Catskills and the Berkshires in 1846, he gave up the figure completely for landscape. The direction he took was decidedly out of step with the predominant tradition. Unlike Cole, Gifford intended to paint landscapes without the aid of heroic or religious subjects or of transplanted European affectations.

Gifford worked in the New York area until 1855, when he left for Europe to travel and study for three years. In England, he was exposed to the work of J.M.W. Turner and the art criticism of John Ruskin; in Italy he traveled with the American painter Albert Bierstadt; in France he frequented the Louvre and saw the paintings of the French Barbizon School.

The artist returned to America in 1858, taking a studio in the Tenth Street Building where he associated with fellow-tenants Frederick E. Church, Worthington Whittredge, Albert Bierstadt, John Casilear, and others.

Gifford began to create works in his mature style, known today as Luminism. Working slowly and on a small scale, he balanced minute detail with a graceful sense of overall atmosphere. Brushwork is subdued; forms are clearly delineated; topography is sacrificed to the main focus -- the play of light. His statement that "landscape-painting is air-painting" shows his concentration on the subtleties of colored light."

Gifford continued to travel. In 1868 he went abroad again--this time traveling not only in Europe but in parts of the Middle East. The following year, he journeyed with the painters Worthington Whittredge and John Kensett to the Colorado Rockies, where he joined F. V. Hayden's surveying expedition to Wyoming.

Sanford Gifford died in New York City in 1880 at the age of fifty-seven. He was immediately honored by a memorial exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Biography from Tobin Reese Fine Art
Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) was a member of the Hudson River School, a group of landscape artists whose works reflect a romantic aesthetic; their paintings mostly depict the Hudson River and surrounding natural features. Gifford was particularly known for his ability to capture light in his paintings. During his lifetime, he painted more than 700 landscapes.

Gifford was born in Greenfield, New York, and was raised in Hudson, New York. After studying at Brown University in Rhode Island for two years, he returned to New York in 1845 to study art full-time; there, he received instruction from John R. Smith while taking classes at both Crosby Street Medical College and the National Academy of Design. After two years at the National Academy, he exhibited his first painting, a landscape. From here, he gained associate status at the National Academy in 1851, upgraded to an academician in 1854. He immediately set out for Europe in order to find a varied and diverse body of landscapes which he could paint. In addition to his time in Europe from 1855 to 1857, he also traveled extensively throughout New England, amassing a large body of landscapes from his travels.

Gifford's travels were interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861; he served as a corporal in the Union Army while continuing to paint when he could; his paintings from this period reflect the despair that he felt about the war. After the Civil War ended, he returned to Europe in 1868, this time opting to also visit the Middle East; he spent a significant amount of time in Venice, a city which would be clearly depicted in the paintings of his last decade. After returning to the United States, he became a founding member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He continued to paint works which many consider to be some of his finest, perhaps inspired by his marriage to Mary Canfield in 1877.

Gifford died in 1880 after contracting a respiratory disease. His reputation secured as one of the most influential American painters of the 19th century, he became the subject of the Metropolitan Museum's first retrospective. In addition, a catalog of all of his works was released, documenting 735 of his most influential paintings. During the 20th century, many of his letters and papers were donated to the Archives of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2007, these were made available online as the Sanford Robinson Gifford Papers Online.

Ian Martyn for Tobin Reese Fine Art

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Sanford Gifford's ancestors included several generations that settled in America as early as the seventeenth century.  After the arrival of children, the Gifford family planted their familial roots in the city of Hudson, on the Hudson River, where the patriarch utilized family resources to open a successful iron foundry.  The location of Hudson and its bustling industrial growth led to its importance in New York, but the view of the Catskill Mountains created the scenery that so many artists like Sanford Gifford sought to recreate and interpret on canvas in the mid-nineteenth century.

Gifford attended Brown University for several semesters before abandoning his academic studies for the life of an artist in New York City, an action that received some resistance from his family.  Alternate reports on Gifford's early studies in New York exist, but he did attend classes at the National Academy of Design where he boldly stated his intentions to become an artist.

Portraits consumed his early student years, but in the late 1840s, his sketchbooks reflect initial explorations of the New England landscape and its promise as a viable subject for his paintings.  He traversed the rivers, mountains and valleys around his home base of Hudson and other locales in New York, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

In order to complete his visual arts education Gifford traveled to Europe in the 1850s and explored the landscape of England, Scotland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy for two years.  His Grand Tour also involved museum visits and the acquaintances of European and American artists such as Emmanuel Leutze, Albert Bierstadt, Worthington Whittredge, and even the renowned British theoretician John Ruskin.

Gifford's career sustained involvement in the Civil War, and a slow period before a second rejuvenating sojourn to Europe occurred in 1868-69.  Throughout his life, Gifford remained involved in artist organizations and continuously exhibited his work in America and abroad. (1)

Gifford's landscape paintings have played a critical role in the development of an American art style created during the latter half of the nineteenth century. By the time Gifford's painting style matured, Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School painters had already initiated the moralizing American landscapes depicted on canvas. Artists such as Gifford advanced these early landscapes with an infusion of pure light and atmosphere to introduce a style known as luminism to the American buying public.  

The definition and parameters of this art movement are varied, but Barbara Novak notes, "In a luminist landscape, nature is presented on a smooth, mirror-like surface that shows barely a trace of the artistic hand.  In removing his presence from the painting, the artist acts as a clarifying lens, allowing the spectator to confront the image more directly and immediately.  Perhaps because of the absence of stroke, time stops, and the moment is locked in place—locked even more by a strong horizontal organization, by an almost mathematical ordering of planes in space parallel to the picture surface, and by deliberately aligned vertical and occasional diagonal accents." (2)

When isolating the statements of such a specific definition, each element applies perfectly to Gifford's painting A Home in the Woods.  For this composition, Gifford places his view of mountain, lake and shore within a horizontal format, which reinforces the placid lake.  The calm water reflects the towering mountain as well as the shore and even a figure in a boat on the lake.  Gifford captures clearly a still moment in time, and emphasizes the effect with delicately thin layers of paint to create the water, the mountain, and the clear sky above.  The thin glazing of paint in these areas contrasts Gifford's more obvious brushwork detailing the land and foliage of the foreground, which slightly indicates the artist's presence without obscuring the viewer's experience. Gifford tempers the horizontal emphasis with an asymmetrical bottom third in the composition, vertical trees, and diagonal accents of the lakeshore and the path paralleling it.  Gifford depicted the popular picturesque composition—rough foreground foliage, middle ground with reflective water and background of mountains.

Gifford was not alone in employing nature to provide religious or mystical messages. Fellow landscape painters along with contemporary American authors frequently discussed the transcendental qualities of nature as well as nature's representation of the sublime.  In order to promote the country's seemingly good fortune and expansive triumph with no obvious reference to economic plights or tensions from the Civil War, Gifford painted the theme of an American wilderness with an emphasis on the pioneer in several paintings.

1. For detailed biographical information, see Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987).

2. Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience (New York: Harper & Row, 1979, second edition), 97-98.  This is Novak's definition of luminism, a term that was first coined by John I.H. Baur in 1954.  Baur's did not include the artist Sanford Gifford in his discussion of luminism.  However, Gifford's inclusion in this movement is solidified with Novak's essays and subsequent publications.  For additional discussion see, Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, revised edition) and John Wilmerding, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875 (Washington: National Gallery of Art and Princeton University Press, 1989). staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Sanford Robinson Gifford

Born:  1823 - Greenfield, New York
Died:   1880 - New York City
Known for:  landscape, marine, and portrait painting-luminism

Essays referring to
Sanford Robinson Gifford

Hudson River School Painters
Paris pre-1900