Paths Taken: Reflecting on Sanford R. Gifford and My Early Career

Published: Mar 22, 2023

By Chloe Heins, Director of Questroyal Fine Art


Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880) – Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, 1860

I’m here…I’ve made it. On a loop, those thoughts echoed in my mind that evening. They drowned out the drone of hushed voices beneath louder bursts of enthusiasm. Walking over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the gallery, swiftly crossing Fifth Avenue, climbing the Museum’s grand front staircase, it began to sink in. It was early October 2003, the night of the opening for Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford. I had started working at Questroyal just a few months prior. This moment, that evening, was the first tangible moment in my nascent career when I realized, incredulously, that I was actually in the art world—I had arrived.

Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, 2003, installation view

The Gifford retrospective was jaw-droppingly beautiful—grand, yet relatable. As Gifford’s friend and contemporary John F. Weir wrote in his memorial address for the artist, “He was unerringly profound in his insight into that which was most truly nature, into those potent truths that underlie the superficial aspects which engage the common mind or attract the common eye.”[1]

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880) – Storm King on the Hudson

I will never hear the word luminous again without thinking of Gifford’s paintings; in my mind, that word is indexed in dictionarylike fashion aside Gifford masterpieces such as Sunset Over the Palisades on the Hudson, 1879 or Kauterskill Clove, in the Catskills, 1862.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880) – Sunset Over the Palisades on the Hudson, 1879; Private collection

That night, at the Gifford opening, I trailed Lou and our clients, silently trying to take it all in, pinching  myself. Now, perhaps I take for granted that I could hang Sanford Gifford paintings next to my desk or hold their gilded 19th-century frames in my hands and it would just be another day at the office. Yet somehow, two decades in, there is a part of me that is still quietly weaving through the opening, trying not to lose the silhouette of Lou’s suit jacket in the crowd, surrounded by strangers and paintings I had yet to learn about. Gifford’s unmatched use of light is like a language I couldn’t speak but now feel fluent in. His scenes of the Shawangunks and Catskills now not only seem familiar but personal—they remind me of long hikes, before I had a young child, when I could wander the woods for 10+ miles at a time, just hoping to make it back to the car before sunset and the onset of unbearable blisters.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880) – Sunset Over the Shawangunks

Today, flipping through the Met 2003 Gifford exhibition catalogue, I am transported back to my beginnings in American paintings—those moments of captivation that revealed to me an undiscovered realm of beautiful art, that, despite many years of art education and museum and gallery visits, was still wildly unfamiliar to me.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823–1880) – Mount Etna from Catania, 1868

Now on view at Questroyal Fine Art through April 8, 2023, The Historic Hudson River School: American Genius features an impressive eight paintings by Sanford R. Gifford.

[1] John F. Weir, A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N.A. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1881), 10.

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