Private collection, Connecticut
Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, “Third Cincinnati Industrial Exposition,” 1872
Saint Louis Mercantile Library Association, “Second Annual Exhibition of Paintings,” November–December 1872
Connecticut School of Design, Hartford, “Annual Exhibition of the Connecticut School of Design,” 1873
Century Association, New York, April 4, 1874
Louisville Industrial Exposition, 1877
World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
Third Cincinnati Industrial Exposition: Official Catalogue of the Works of Painting, Sculpture and Engraving, Exhibited in the Art Department, exh. cat. (Cincinnati: Wrightson & Co., 1872), no. 78.
Catalogue of the Second Annual Exhibition of Paintings by the Saint Louis Mercantile Library Association, exh. cat. (Saint Louis: Saint Louis Mercantile Library Association, 1872), no. 61.
Catalogue of the Second Annual Exhibition of the Connecticut School of Design, exh. cat. (Hartford: Press of Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1873), no. 8.
Century Association, Exhibition April 4, 1874, exh. cat. (New York: Century Association, 1874), no. 31.
Louisville Industrial Exposition: Catalogue of Paintings and Statuary, exh. cat. (Louisville: Louisville Industrial Company, 1877), no. 188.
World’s Columbian Exposition: Revised Catalogue, Department of Fine Arts (Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1893), p. 67, no. 986.
Samuel Colman, Gibraltar, ca. 1863, oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 72 inches, whereabouts unknown
Robert Swain Gifford was born on Nonamesset Island, Massachusetts, and moved to Fairhaven at the age of two. Poor health and finances plagued the family. Although the circumstances of Gifford’s childhood deprived him of an art education, they did grant him access to the ocean, which served as source material for drawings, etchings, watercolors, and paintings throughout his career. While working on the wharf, Gifford took up drawing and solicited the guidance of the Dutch émigré marine painter Albert van Beest, who became the aspiring artist’s mentor.
Confident that his work would sell in an urban market, Gifford moved in 1865 to New York, where he shared a studio with the landscape painter Samuel Colman. Working alongside Colman, a mature artist, no doubt influenced the young Gifford. In fact, a decade before Gifford toured Europe and Africa, Colman had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and composed a painting of the Rock of Gibraltar. Gifford’s own pension for travel advanced his visual sensibility and technique. California and Oregon exposed him to unfamiliar scenery, which inspired him to veer from the bluish palette and tight, detailed style he inherited from van Beest. Europe and Africa attuned his eye to atmosphere.
In 1870, one year after the Suez Canal was completed, sparking Egyptomania, Gifford embarked upon a journey to Europe, where he passed through Gibraltar en route to North Africa. The Rock of Gibraltar was born of this voyage. Gifford’s depiction of Gibraltar brims with detail: birds hover above an aerie, mainsails speckle the base of the Rock, sailors man their ships, and locals traverse the beach. Yet, the composition prioritizes atmosphere over these features, reveling in the muted glow of subdued sunlight that radiates from the shore, sails, and limestone. This use of light, where the hazy sky blends into the landscape and blurs the edges of the Rock, as well as the resultant mood characterizes Gifford as a Tonalist. The warm tones and slack waters impart an aura of stillness and serenity, removing from the scene a sense of motion and time. A geometric undercurrent further enhances the picture’s gentle beauty, realized in the tilt of the peninsula that reverberates in the upward sweep of the sails, the rise of the figure perched atop his donkey, the rock formation on the shore, and the leaning form of the man in red. As a New York Times review of the 1872 National Academy exhibition, which likely featured The Rock of Gibraltar, lauded, “Simplicity of treatment and truthfulness of color are the principal merits of this work.”
According to the epic poet Homer, Gibraltar is one of the two Pillars of Hercules forged when the hero severed Europe from Africa. Overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar—the sole point of entry to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean—the peninsula occupies a site of strategic importance; it passed through the hands of the Umayyad caliphate and the Spanish before the British seized control in 1704. Gifford tackled this subject matter—monumental in its history and scope—with an aptly proportioned canvas. Fittingly, the painting represents a monumental work in the artist’s oeuvre. The historical importance of the subject matter, the dimensions, and the high level of finish indicate that The Rock of Gibraltar was an exhibition piece. In addition to the National Academy annual, the work also likely hung among the oil paintings at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. As a member of the selection committee, it follows that Gifford would submit The Rock of Gibraltar, one of his masterpieces, to this Chicago fair.
Robert Swain Gifford helped found the Society of American Artists and the Tile Club. He was elected an Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1878. He taught at, and later served as director of, the Arts Schools at Cooper Union. Gifford exhibited works at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Boston Art Club, and Parrish Art Museum. At present his work is included in the collections of the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; and High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
. Wayne Craven, “Samuel Colman (1832–1920): Rediscovered Painter of Far-Away Places, American Art Journal 8, no. 1 (May 1976): 20, fig. 7.
2. Van Beest immigrated to Massachusetts in about 1855; he later shared a studio and collaborated with the marine painter William Bradford; see “Van Beest, Albert,” Who Was Who in American Art, Peter Hastings Falk, ed. (Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, 1999), vol. 3, p. 3379.
. Craven, “Samuel Colman,” pp. 18–20.
. Elton W. Hall, R. Swain Gifford, 1840–1905, exh. cat. (New Bedford: Whaling Museum, Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1974), p. 1.
. Ibid., p. xiv.
. “Fine Arts: Second Notice of the Academy Exhibition, The Studios,” New York Times, April 28, 1872.
. World’s Columbian Exposition: Revised Catalogue, Department of Fine Arts (Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1893), p. 67, no. 986.