Robert Swain Gifford

Artist Biography

Turn of the century American Landscape painter who specialized in New England Coastal scenes.

By Chelsea DeLay

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Robert Swain Gifford was born in 1840, on Nonamesset Island, one of the Elizabeth Islands just off the coast of Massachusetts. At only seventeen years old, Gifford’s raw artistic skill caught the attention of Albert Van Beest, a Dutch marine painter visiting the New Bedford area.[1] As a guest of fellow maritime painter William Bradford, Van Beest’s time spent at the Massachusetts coast was short-lived, but nevertheless his support and encouragement was significant in the development of Gifford’s artistic style.

As a primarily self-taught artist, Gifford went on several artistic expeditions during the early 1870s, seeking inspiration from the western coast of the United States, in addition to the Far East.[2] The early works by Gifford reflect the Barbizon style, as seen in Cedars of New England (1876). This piece received a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia, which launched the beginning of Gifford’s career as a successful landscape artist.[3] Heralded as “the best landscape,”[4] Cedars of New England demonstrated Gifford’s well developed feel for graphic form and expressive brushwork, as well as muted tonalities, all of which would become telling characteristics of his work.[5]

Gifford was one of the earliest members of The Tile Club, which was founded in New York City in 1877. He participated in several of the club’s sketching trips, where he was accompanied by fellow American artists William Baird, William Merritt Chase, Edward Wimbridge, and John H. Twachtman.[6] These excursions resulted in numerous landscape studies that demonstrated a transition in Gifford’s style: the use of low-toned ochres and greens acted as evidence that he had begun to absorb the tonal realism that became popular in American art during the last years of the nineteenth century.

The newfound favor for realism in American art—a drastic shift away from the restrained, academic approach—posed quite a problem for many American artists, yet not for Gifford. Famed critic Charles de Kay noted Gifford’s adeptness of skill, stating, “In some cases the struggles of Academicians under the unwonted weight of a new idea are amusing; in other they are worthy of our respect. Mr. Gifford may be classed with the later.”[7]

As a member of both the National Academy and its rival organization, the Society of American Artists, Gifford’s desire to bridge the stylistic gap between the old and new generation of American artists was clear. He continued to work and successfully exhibit up until the last years in his life, and was even asked to travel along with the Harriman Expedition as a landscape artist in 1899.[8] The art world mourned his death in 1905, but he continues to be revered as one of America’s most talented landscape painters.

II. Chronology

1840 Born in Nonamesset, Massachusetts
1866–96 Taught at Cooper Union School
1869 Traveled to the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington
1870 Traveled to England, France, Spain, Italy, Morocco, and Egypt
1872 Hired as an illustrator for Picturesque America
1876 Received gold medal for Cedars of New England (1876) at the Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia
1877 Became a member of The Tile Club;
Helped found The Society of American Artists
1878 Participated in the first excursion of The Tile Club; traveled to East Hampton
1879 Participated in The Tile Club’s expedition, traveled up the Hudson River through the Erie Canal to Lake Champlain
1882 Featured in the The Tile Club exhibition held at the St. Botolph Club, in Boston, Massachusetts
1899 Accompanied the Harriman Expedition to Alaska
1905 Passed away in New York

III. Collections

Allen Memorial Art Museum, OH
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, TX
Anchorage Museum at Rasuson Center, AK
Baltimore Museum of Arts, MD
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, MA
Boston Public Library
Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Institute, PA
Columbus Museum of Art, OH
Columbus Museum, GA
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Everson Museum of Art, NY
Farnsworth Museum of Art, GA
Hudson River Museum, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, MO
New Bedford Whaling Museum, MA
New York Public Library, NY
Newark Museum, NJ
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Smith College Museum of Art, MA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Spencer Museum of Art, KS
University of Wyoming Art Museum, WY
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, MD

IV. Exhibitions

1863–99 National Academy of Design
1867–77, 1879, 1881–83 Brooklyn Art Association
1876 Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia, gold medalist
1877–83 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1877, 1879–82, 1884–88 Chicago Interstate Industrial Exposition
1880–96 Boston Art Club
1881 Art Students League
1882 The Tile Club Exhibition, St. Botolph Club
1892–93 World’s Columbian Exposition
1899–1903 Society of Landscape Painters
1901 Pan-American Exposition, gold medalist
1902 Charleston Exposition, gold medalist
1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis World Fair
1974 New Bedford Whaling Museum, full retrospective
1984 Parrish Art Museum, Painters-Etchers exhibition

V. Memberships

American Watercolor Society, 1866
Associate Member of the National Academy, 1867
Century Association, 1868
National Academy (full membership) 1878
National Arts Club
Royal Society of Painters-Etchers, London
Society of American Artists, 1877
Society of Landscape Painters, 1899
The Lotos Club
The Tile Club, 1877

V. Suggested Resources

1. Cleveland, David A., forward by John Wilmerding. A History of American Tonalism: 1880–1920. New York: Hudson Hill Press, 2010.
2. Falk, Peter H. Who Was Who in American Art. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999. p. 1282.

VI. Notes

1. Cooper Gaw, “Robert Swain Gifford: Landscape Painter,” in Brush and Pencil 15 (April 1905): 204.
2. S. R. Koehler, “R. Swain Gifford, N.A.,” in The American Art Review 1 (August 1880): 419.
3. David A. Cleveland, forward by John Wilmerding, A History of American Tonalism: 1880–1920 (New York: Hudson Hill Press, 2010), 173.
4. “The American Painters–Their Landscapes in the Exhibition,” in The New York Times (18 August 1878).
5. Cleveland 174–5.
6. Ronald G. Pisano, The Tile Club and the Aesthetic Movement in America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999), 13.
7. Cleveland, 174.
8. Gaw, 202.

Read Less

Contact Us About This Artist

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

      Go To Top