Sanford Gifford began training in New York City to be a portrait painter, but—inspired by the work of the American landscapist Thomas Cole—turned to landscape painting. Gifford spent the summer of 1846 touring and sketching in the Catskill and Berkshire mountains, and by 1847, had begun to show his work at the American Art-Union and the National Academy of Design, where he was elected an associate in 1850 and an academician in 1854.
In 1855, Gifford traveled to Europe, where he spent two and a half years visiting the great repositories of art and sketching scenery in England, Scotland, France, the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In England, he admired the color and light in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, and discussed his work with the critic John Ruskin. Gifford was also impressed by the work of the French landscape painters of the Barbizon school, but wrote in his journal of the dangers of surrendering to a particular method or school of painting, lest they "usurp the place of Nature."
When Gifford returned to the United States in 1857, he took up quarters in the new Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City but left it nearly every summer to sketch in the countryside. Favorite settings in this period were the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains in Vermont, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and various locales in Maine and Nova Scotia. The artist's fascination with the transfiguring effects of light on native scenery is apparent in works such as the 1862 painting, A Gorge in the Mountains (formerly Kauterskill Clove), in which the radiant afternoon sun hovers over an idyllic mountain gorge.
During the early years of the Civil War, Gifford served in New York's renowned Seventh Regiment. His experiences during the war inspired a number of paintings of Union campsites in Virginia and Maryland, and informed several works, such as Hunter Mountain, Twilight (Terra Foundation for the Arts), a melancholy landscape of 1866.
In 1868, Gifford went abroad for a second and last time, spending more than a year traveling in Europe and the Middle East. The mirrorlike waters and luminous aerial effects that typify Leander's Tower on the Bosphorus (1876, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums) and Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore (1871) are based on studies from this time.
Gifford, along with notable artists and civic leaders of the day, was a founder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. After he died in 1880, he was honored with the Metropolitan's first monographic retrospective and a memorial catalogue of his known pictures.
The Hudson River School, first identified at the end of its heyday, was a fraternity of artists who worked principally in New York City from about 1840 to 1875. Together, they raised landscape painting to preeminent status in America in the mid-nineteenth century. Originally attracted by the grandeur of natural scenery along the Hudson River and in New England, the painters interpreted both the wilderness and the pastoral face of a growing and changing nation.
Thomas Cole (1801–1848) was the founding figure of the school. He attracted the engraver Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) to landscape painting, and together they constituted the first generation of the group. Cole and Durand influenced a second generation of younger painters, including Gifford and his colleagues Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), John Kensett (1816–1872), Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), and Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910).