Artist Biography

Sanford Robinson Gifford

(1823 - 1880)

Table of Contents

    Prominent Luminist Hudson River School painter

    By Amy Spencer

    Defining the salient characteristics of the second-generation Hudson River School, Sanford R. Gifford’s luminist style effectively evoked both the subtle and dramatic effects epitomized by landscape painting in nineteenth-century America.

    I. Biography

    The second-generation Hudson River School painter Sanford Robinson Gifford was a master at depicting light and atmosphere in landscapes. As the only painter among his contemporaries to be born and grow up in the heart of the Hudson River Valley, Gifford had a special affinity for the mountains, valleys, and rivers of the region. Over the course of his career he also traveled extensively around the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains, and ventured abroad on painting trips throughout Europe and the Middle East. This contrasting subject matter demonstrated his skill at depicting various ambient atmospheres with sincerity, charm, and realism.

    Sanford Robinson Gifford was born in Greenfield, New York. He spent his childhood in Hudson (on the Hudson River south of Albany) where his father operated iron foundries and a bank. Coming from a reasonably wealthy family allowed Gifford the freedom to pursue his artistic endeavours unhindered by commercial incentives and trends.

    From 1842 to 1844, Gifford attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, before moving to New York City to become an artist. Gifford trained to become a portrait and figure painter by studying drawing, perspective, and anatomy under the direction of the British watercolorist John Ruebens Smith. He also took drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and studied the human figure in anatomy classes at the Crosby Street Medical College.

    As a student Gifford developed solid skills at figure drawing; however, a sketching trip in 1846 to the Catskills and the Berkshires led to his focused interest in landscape painting. He later explained the profound significance of this trip to a friend: “Having once enjoyed the absolute freedom of the landscape artist’s life, I was unable to return to portrait painting. From this time my direction in art was determined.”[1] After this seminal trip, Gifford returned annually to experience the “absolute freedom” of the Catskills, White Mountains, Shawangunk Mountains, and Adirondack Mountains every summer for the next nine years. His companions on these trips included the artists Samuel Colman, Benjamin Champney, Alfred T. Ordway, and Aaron Draper Shattuck.

    In 1847 some of Gifford’s first works were exhibited by the American Art Union. The same year Gifford exhibited his first landscape at the National Academy and submitted work almost annually thereafter. He was elected an associate of the Academy in 1851 and a full Academician in 1854.

    In the summer of 1855 Gifford visited England, where he studied the glowing atmospheric effects in J.M.W. Turner’s work at London’s National Gallery; he also discussed Turner’s work with the art critic John Ruskin. He then visited Scotland, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In the autumn of 1856 Gifford rented a studio in Rome where he painted his largest, and one of his most famous, works Lake Nemi (1856–57; Toledo Museum of Art). He exhibited Lake Nemi at the National Academy the same year. This work, with is depiction of radiant sunlight and hazy atmosphere, marks the crystallization of Gifford’s achievements in Europe and heralds the beginning phase of his mature style.

    During the spring of 1857, Gifford spent time sketching with William H. Beard, Albert Bierstadt, and T. Worthington Whittredge. He then took a walking tour of southern Italy with Bierstadt in May, before ending his European tour with a trip to Innsbruck, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, and Paris.

    Gifford returned to America at the end of the summer in 1857. He rented studio Number 19 in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, where his studio neighbors included Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, William Hart, Jervis McEntee, and Whittredge. Gifford retained this studio for the next twenty-three years working in it during fall, winter, and spring, then spending most of his summers traveling in Northeastern locations such as those along the Delaware, Chenango, Susquehanna, Chemung, and Hudson rivers.

    During the Civil War Gifford served in New York’s Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, which was based in New York City. He continued to paint throughout the war and his reputation grew rapidly with the production of landscape masterworks such as Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove) (1862; Metropolitan Museum of Art), and historic wartime scenes including Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment at Arlington Heights, Virginia (1861; whereabouts unknown) and Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, in July 1863 (1864; Seventh Regiment Fund, New York). Gifford’s professional success during these years was deeply marred by personal tragedy; his brother Charles committed suicide in 1861, and his brother Edward died in conflict in 1863.

    During the summer of 1867, Gifford spent most of his time painting on the New Jersey coast, specifically at Sandy Hook and Long Branch. The next year, the artist returned to Europe. He visited London and Paris again with his close friends McEntee and McEntee’s wife. He then spent the summer visiting the Alps and Sicily before wintering in Rome with the McEntees, his sister Mary, Church and his wife.

    In January 1869 Gifford embarked on a two-month excursion down the Nile in Egypt, visiting Alexandria and Cairo. He then travelled through the Middle East with a group of Americans, visiting Syria, Jerusalem, Samaria, Damascus, Greece, and Turkey. During his travels Gifford painted monuments such as the pyramids and the Colossi of Memnon; however, most of his paintings from this trip are Nile River scenes. Gifford returned to continental Europe via Beirut, Greece, Istanbul, Budapest and Vienna. He then spent six weeks in Venice over the summer before returning to the United States in September.

    In 1870 Gifford took advantage of the newly connected railways to visit the Rocky Mountains with fellow artists Whittredge and Kensett. They accompanied a United States Geological party under Dr. Hayden in the exploration of Wyoming, Utah, and the Colorado territories. Gifford took a second trip west in the summer of 1873, visiting California, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska.

    During the last decade of his life, Gifford continued to travel extensively around the northeastern region of America and into Canada. He married Mary Cecilia Canfield, an old school friend, in 1877. While on a fishing trip at Lake Superior in 1880 he contracted a respiratory ailment, returned to New York City, and died shortly after at age fifty-six on August 29. Gifford was eulogized at a memorial meeting of the National Academy of Design and buried in the Gifford family plot in Hudson, New York.

    In November 1880 Gifford was posthumously honored with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first monographic retrospective in its new Central Park building. In 1881 the museum published the Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N.A., which documents 735 of Gifford’s works. This tribute by the Metropolitan Museum was especially fitting as Gifford had been among one of fifty prominent New Yorkers to draft the museum’s original resolution for the municipal art institution.

    Gifford’s paintings are held in the esteemed collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Whitney Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Gallery of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[2]

    II. Chronology

    • 1823 Sanford Robinson Gifford is born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, New York, the fourth of eleven children to Elihu and Eliza Starbuck Gifford; as an infant moves with his family to Hudson, New York
    • 1830 Attends school at the Hudson Academy until 1842
    • 1842 Attends Brown University for two years
    • 1845 Moves to New York City to study drawing, perspective and anatomy under English artist John Reubens Smith; takes a drawing trip through New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; visiting the Catskills and the Berkshires
    • 1846 In the summer returns to the Catskills and the Berkshires; studies at the Antique School and at the National Academy of Design
    • 1847 Has first painting, Lake Scene, on the Catskills (c.1846), exhibited at the National Academy of Design (submits his work almost annually hereafter); studies the human figure in anatomy classes at the Crosby Street Medical college; visits the Catskills in August
    • 1848 In the summer travels through the Adirondack Mountains and returns to the Catskills
    • 1849 Sketches with Henry Ary in the Catskills and travels on the Hudson River between Albany and Glens Falls
    • 1850 Elected an associate of the National Academy; takes a trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and to Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    • 1851 Sketches in the Adirondack Mountains with Eliphalet Terry, Richard W. Hubbard, and his older brother Frederick
    • 1852 Travels around Pennsylvania, also returns to Hudson and visits Philadelphia
    • 1854 Elected a full academician of the National Academy; sketches in New Jersey and Maine, and visits an artists colony in Saco Valley, New Hampshire
    • 1855 In summer sails to England, where in London he visits the National Gallery, Royal Academy of Art, and Society of Painters of Water Colors; takes summer sketching trips around England and Scotland before sailing to Paris
    • 1856 Rents a studio in Rome where he paints Lake Nemi (1856–57; Toledo Museum of Art), his largest-known work
    • 1857 During the spring meets fellow American artists Worthington Whittredge, William H. Beard and Albert Bierstadt; in May takes sketching trip with Bierstadt through southern Italy; ends his European tour with a visits to Innsbruck, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, and Paris; returns to New York in September and rents a studio number 19 at the Tenth Street Studio Building where Bierstadt and Frederic Church are his neighbors (he retains this studio until his death)
    • 1858 Travels to Vermont with painter Jerome Thompson
    • 1861–63 During the Civil War serves in the Union Army with the Seventh Regiment of the New York Militia stationed in defense of Washington D.C.
    • 1861 Brother Charles commits suicide at the war’s outbreak
    • 1863 Brother Edward dies in conflict
    • 1867 Spends the summer in New Jersey painting the coast at Sandy Hook and Long Branch; represents American art at the International Exposition in Paris with painting Hunter Mountain Twilight (1866; Terra Foundation of American Art) along with Winslow Homer’s Prisoners from the Front (1866; Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    • 1868 Makes final journey to Europe with Jervis McEntee and his wife; spends the summer visiting the Alps and Sicily before wintering in Rome
    • 1869 Travels to Egypt where he takes a two-month boat voyage from Cairo down the Nile River; travels to the Middle East with Alfred Craven via the Suez Canal, where his itinerary includes Syria, Jerusalem, Samaria, Damascus, Greece and Turkey
    • 1870 After returning to America takes a trip to Colorado with Whittredge and Kensett
    • 1872 Serves as a pallbearer at Kensett’s funeral
    • 1873 Visits California, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska
    • 1877 Marries Mary Canfield, a widow
    • 1880 While on a fishing trip at Lake Superior contracts a respiratory ailment, returns to New York City, and dies shortly after at age fifty-six; has the first monographic retrospective to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • 1881 The Metropolitan Museum of Art publishes A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N.A., which documents 735 of Gifford’s works

    III. Collections

    • Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
    • Adirondack Museum, NY
    • Albany Institute of History and Art, NY
    • Amherst College, Mead Art Museum, MA
    • Amon Carter Museum, TX
    • Art Complex Museum, MA
    • Art Institute of Chicago, IN
    • Ball State University Museum of Art, IA
    • Baltimore Museum of Art
    • Brooklyn Museum
    • Butler Institute of American Art, OH
    • Century Association, NY
    • Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, WI
    • Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, TN
    • Chrysler Museum of Art, VA
    • Cleveland Museum of Art
    • Colby College Museum of Art, ME
    • Columbia County Historical Society, NY
    • Columbus Museum, GA
    • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC
    • Currier Gallery of Art, NH
    • Dayton Art Institute, OH
    • Detroit Institute of Arts
    • Everson Museum of Art of Syracuse and Onondaga County, NY
    • Farnsworth Art Museum, MA
    • Figge Art Museum, IA
    • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
    • Fogg Museum at Harvard University, MA
    • Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at the Vassar College, NY
    • George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, MA
    • Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, NH
    • Hunter Museum of Art, TN
    • Indiana University Art Museum
    • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • Montclair Art Museum, NJ
    • Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art, NY
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
    • Museum of Fine Arts at Brigham Young University, UT
    • Museum of the City of New York
    • Nashville Parthenon, TN
    • National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
    • New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
    • New-York Historical Society
    • New York Public Library
    • New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center
    • Newark Museum, NJ
    • North Carolina Museum of Art
    • Oakland Museum, CA
    • Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University
    • Parthenon, TN
    • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    • Philadelphia Museum of Art
    • Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University, NY
    • Phoenix Art Museum, AZ
    • Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
    • Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art
    • Robert Hull Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont
    • St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, VT
    • Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, NY
    • Seattle Art Museum
    • Smith College Museum of Art, MA
    • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
    • Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas
    • Springfield Museum of Art, OH
    • Sweet Briar College, VA
    • Terra Foundation for the Arts, IL
    • Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
    • Toledo Museum of Art, OH
    • Trinity College, CT
    • Union League Club, NY
    • United States Department of the Interior, Washington DC
    • Virginia Steele Scott Foundation, CA
    • Wadsworth Atheneum, CT
    • Washington University Gallery of Art, MO
    • Whitney Museum of American Art
    • Williams College Museum of Art, MA
    • Yale University Art Gallery, CT

    IV. Exhibitions

    • 1847 The National Academy of Design, New York (also in 1848, 1849, 1850, 1850, 1851, 1852, 1853, 1854, 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1859, 1860, 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1870, 1872, 1873, 1874, 1876, 1877, 1878, 1879, and 1880)
    • 1848 The American Art-Union, New York (also in 1849, 1850, and 1852)
    • 1855 The Boston Athenaeum, Boston (also in 1858, 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864, 1865, and 1869)
    • 1856 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (also in 1861, 1863, 1864, 1867, 1868, and 1880)
    • 1858 The Washington Art Association, Washington DC
    • 1859 Young Men’s Association, Troy, New York (also in 1860, and 1861)
    • Yale Art Library, New Haven, Connecticut
    • Tenth Street Studio Exhibition, New York (also in 1860)
    • Dodsworth’s Studio Exhibition, New York (also in 1860)
    • 1860 Artists’ Fund Society, New York (also in 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1871, 1872, and 1873)
    • Pittsburgh Art Association
    • Western Academy of Art, Saint Louis
    • 1861 Brooklyn Art Association, New York (also in 1862, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, 1869, 1870, 1872, 1873, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1877, 1878, 1879, and 1880)
    • 1863 Weehawken Gallery, New Jersey
    • 1864 Great Central Fair, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    • 1865 Northwestern Fair, Chicago, Illinois
    • Philadelphia Sketch Club
    • Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, New York (also in 1873)
    • 1866 Opera House Art Association, New York, New York
    • 1867 Exposition Universelle, Paris (also in 1878)
    • Yale [College] School of Fine Arts, New Haven, Connecticut (also in 1870, 1871, 1872, 1874, and 1875)
    • Derby Gallery, New York, New York
    • American Society of Painters in Water Colors, New York
    • 1868 Union League Club, New York (also in 1870, 1871, 1873, and 1876)
    • Utica Art Association, New York (also in 1871, and 1878)
    • Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore
    • 1869 Century Association, New York (also in 1870, 1871, 1872, 1873, 1874, 1875, and 1876)
    • 1870 Harrison Collection, Philadelphia
    • Jenkins Collection, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore
    • 1871 Saint Louis Mercantile Library, St. Louis (also in 1872)
    • 1873 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, Cincinnati (also in 1874)
    • Connecticut School of Design, Hartford, Connecticut
    • “John Frederick Kensett Memorial Exhibition,” National Academy of Design
    • 1874 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (also in 1875)
    • Moore’s Art Rooms, New York
    • 1875 Centennial Loan Exhibition, Hartford, Connecticut
    • Chicago Interstate Industrial Exposition, Chicago (also in 1876)
    • Hoe’s Collection, New York
    • 1876 Centennial Exhibition Art Gallery, Philadelphia
    • Young Women’s Christian Association, New York
    • “Centennial Exhibition”, National Academy of Design, New York,
    • “Centennial Exhibition”, Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • San Francisco Art Association
    • 1880 “Sanford Robinson Gifford Memorial Exhibition,” Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • “Sanford Robinson Gifford Memorial Exhibition,” Century Association
    • 1980 “American Light: The Luminist Movement,” National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
    • 1987 “American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School,” Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • 2002 “American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820–1880,” Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
    • 2003 “Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford,” Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • “Hudson River School Drawings From Dia Art Foundation,” Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York
    • 2006 “American Scenery: Different Views in Hudson River School Painting,” Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, New Paltz, New York

    V. Memberships

    • Artists’ Fund Society
    • Century Association
    • Dodsworth’s Artists’ Reception Association
    • National Academy of Design
    • New York Sketch Club
    • Union League Club

    VI. Notes

    1. Sanford Robinson Gifford, “Frothingham Letter,” Archives of American Art; quoted in Kevin J. Avery and Kelly, Franklin, eds., Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), 6.
    2. In 2008 Gifford’s painting Mount Mansfield, Vermont (1859; whereabouts unknown) and Frederic Edwin Church’s Scene on the Magdalene (1854; whereabouts unknown) were involved in controversy when the National Academy of New York deaccessioned them from its collection. They were sold to an unknown buyer for $13.5 million; money which the Academy needed to raise to cover operating expenses during America’s worst financial downturn since the Great Depression. The high price garnered by the sale reflects the ‘recession-proof’ performance of good Hudson River School works at auction, demonstrating how Gifford has become an invaluable part of American national heritage.

    VII. Suggested Resources

    • Avery, Kevin J. and Kelly, Franklin, eds., Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.
    • Weiss, Ila. Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford. Newark, DE: Associated University Presses, 1987.
    • Wilton, Andrew and Barringer, Tim. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880. Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 2002.

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