The second-generation Hudson River School painter Sanford Robinson Gifford built a reputation as a master of light and atmosphere. Born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, New York, as an infant he moved with his family to Hudson, New York, where his father operated and financed iron foundries and a bank. On his eldest brother Charles’s example, he became enamored of art at an early age and may have received some early instruction from Henry Ary, a landscape and portrait painter who had moved to Hudson from Catskill, where he had been a neighbor of Thomas Cole, the progenitor of the American landscape school. Gifford attended Brown University for two years in 1842–44, but did not graduate, telling his parents that he wished to be an artist. Soon after college, he went to New York City to study with the well-known art pedagogue (and fine watercolorist), the English emigré John Rubens Smith. Under Smith, and perhaps at his parents’ insistence, Gifford trained to become a portrait and figure painter, but longed to follow in Cole’s footsteps and to join what was already a small society of young artists inspired by Cole and Asher B. Durand, the president of the National Academy of Design, to pursue landscape painting. By 1847, Gifford had exhibited his first painting at the Academy, submitting almost annually thereafter. In 1850, he was elected an associate of the Academy and, in 1854, a full Academician.
Though Gifford’s signature style was emerging in the early 1850s, his artistic maturity did not come until well into his first trip to Europe, in 1855–57. An admirer of Turner since his boyhood perusals of his brother’s prints after the artist, Gifford studied and copied the master’s work in London’s National Gallery and even visited Turner’s champion, the critic John Ruskin, to discuss his work. Gifford moved on to visit France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. At Düsseldorf, he paused for a time with the community of American artists studying at the academy in that city; then, in the company of several of them, he traveled down the Rhine into Switzerland and Italy, settling in Rome in the spring of 1856. There, Gifford painted his first major—and largest-known—work, Lake Nemi (Toledo Museum of Art), in which he established the radiant sunlight and filmy atmosphere that mark his most memorable paintings. Sent to the Academy that spring, Lake Nemi was warmly received. After a sketching sojourn in spring 1857 with Albert Bierstadt to southern Italy and further touring in northern Austria, Germany, and northern Italy, in September Gifford returned to New York and soon rented working quarters in the new Studio Building on West Tenth Street, where Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and several other landscape painters became his neighbors.
The artist’s reputation mounted rapidly through the Civil War years, earned with masterworks such as the Metropolitan’s Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove) (1862; 15.30.62), in which the circular diffusion of sunlight seems to shape the terrain of the Catskill vale made famous in the fiction of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and in the early paintings of Cole. Such works were executed amidst the artist’s own service in the war, as a national guardsman stationed in defense of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in the summers of 1861–63. In the latter year, Gifford lost a brother, Edward, in the conflict, and his beloved brother Charles committed suicide at the war’s outbreak in 1861. These personal tragedies may have informed signal pictures in an alternative style emphasizing stark crepuscular effects, for example, Twilight in the Catskills (1861; private collection) and Hunter Mountain, Twilight (1866; Terra Foundation of American Art). The latter was one of two Gifford paintings chosen, along with Winslow Homer‘s Prisoners from the Front (1866; 22.207), to represent American art at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.
In 1868–69, Gifford made his second and last Old World visit, this time adding an excursion down the Nile in Egypt and stops in Turkey and Greece to his return visits to Italy and other European nations. He lingered some six weeks in Venice, finding himself this time utterly seduced by the so-called Queen of the Adriatic. With its growing reputation as a tourist mecca, Venice became a frequent subject in the years thereafter, as did Italian subjects in general, such as the Metropolitan’s Tivoli (1870; 12.205.1) and Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore (1871; 21.115.1), with its coronal sunset effect silhouetting the mountainside that plummets into the lake at left. While in Rome, where he arrived in the company of his friend the artist Jervis McEntee and his wife, Gifford welcomed Frederic Church and his family, who had just completed their circuit of the Holy Land and Asia Minor.
The last decade of Gifford’s career was unexceptional for him just after his return to the United States, but events of his final years may have stimulated fresh inspiration. In the mid-1870s, the artist lent his voice to those conservative academicians opposing the younger, emerging talents in Continental-trained figural art who lobbied intensely for more and better representation at the academy exhibitions (and finally broke away to form the Society of American Artists). He married, in 1877, Mary Canfield, a widow. Ever independent and self-effacing, he is said to have confided to a colleague that he did so primarily as a goodwill gesture to a departed former schoolmate. Whatever the circumstances, the artist produced some of his finest canvases in his last years, such as Sunset over the Palisades on the Hudson (1879; private collection), which adapts effects of Gifford’s Italian lake scenes, and Ruins of the Parthenon (1880; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), an eloquent criticism of Church’s aggrandizing treatment of the same subject in a painting (15.30.67) of nine years earlier.
An avid angler, Gifford was on a fishing excursion to Lake Superior when he contracted a respiratory ailment and succumbed rapidly in the summer of 1880 at the age of fifty-six. Cherished by his colleagues, aside from his art, for his quiet simplicity, integrity, and stoicism tinged with melancholy, he was eulogized at a memorial meeting of the National Academy of Design. A founder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, in 1881 Gifford was accorded the institution’s first monographic retrospective, in its new building in Central Park. The Museum in the same year also published the Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N.A., compiled by his friend McEntee and the Museum’s Waldo Pratt, listing 735 works. Those form the majority, if scarcely all, of the output of this productive and first-rank Hudson River School painter.