The Hudson River School: Sanford Robinson Gifford

30 Jan

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Coming Storm (1860)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coming Rain on Lake George, A Sketch (1873)

Note: click on any image to enlarge

In this post I’m featuring the works of the great 19th Century landscape painter Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880).  This is a change of pace from what I’ve been posting for the past couple of months.  With Gifford we travel back in time to the period surrounding the American Civil War and get a glimpse into a truly pre-modern era.

It’s worth remembering that, in the 1870s and 80s, when artists like Sanford Robinson Gifford were painting these great Romantic landscapes, the Impressionist movement was taking off in France.  Yet while the Impressionists’ work feels quite contemporary, even a hundred years after the fact, the landscapes produced by the Romantics have an ancient, primordial feel — which was precisely the intent of the artists who authored them.

The vast, undeveloped American Continent lent itself naturally to the kind of  heroic landscapes painted by artists like Gifford.  You think of Western movies when you look at some of these paintings — they look as if they were custom made for John Ford, don’t they?  They’re the U.S. National Parks and the Boy Scouts of America rolled into one.

Sanford Robinson Gifford (1861)

Sanford Robinson Gifford was born in Greenfield, New York and spent his childhood in Hudson, New York.  He attended Brown University before leaving to study art in New York City in 1845. He studied drawing, perspective and anatomy under British watercolorist and drawing-master John R. Smith.  By 1847 Gifford exhibited his first landscape at the National Academy of Design.  He was elected an associate in 1851 and academician in 1854 and became one of the finest artists of the early Hudson River School.  Gifford is considered one of the greatest Luminists (known for moody atmospheric effects, i.e. light and mist) of all time.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Mist Rising at Sunset in the Catskills (1861)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Sunrise, Long Branch, New Jersey (1864)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, The Ruins of the Parthenon (1880)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, The Roman Campagna (1859)

Gifford traveled extensively.  In addition to New England, upstate New York and New Jersey, he made extensive trips abroad.  He traveled Europe in the late 1850s, becoming a friend and traveling associate of Albert Bierstadt.  He also traveled in Greece, Egypt and the Middle East.  He was a Corporal in the Union Army during the Civil War and continued his artistic career after the war.  Gifford died of malaria in August, 1880; the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a memorial exhibition of 160 of his paintings that same autumn.  At least 700 landscapes are credited to Gifford.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Sunset, Bay of New York (1878)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, View Near Kauterskill Clove (1878)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Fire Island Beach (1878)

I love nearly everything produced by the Hudson River School, including Gifford.  All the paintings are epic.  Which is not to say they are all large.  Some certainly are — works of Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church spring to mind — but this is by no means a universal trait.  Many of Giffords’s paintings are small.  In fact a few on display in the Art Institute of Chicago measure only around 8″ x 10″ to  10″ x 14,” if you can believe it.  Yet there’s an intense, jewel-like “something” about his smaller paintings that is magnified rather than diminished by the works’ compact size.  I like painting in a smaller format myself, so I really appreciate Gifford. 

Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Sketch of the Nile (1869)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, The Road By the Sea Near Palermo, Italy (1874)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Mount Mansfield (1858)

In addition to Gifford, the Hudson River school included (loosely) such notables as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Durand, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Martin Johnson Heade and Thomas Moran.  Cropsey once declared landscape the highest form of painting and nature a direct manifestation of God.  All of the Hudson River School artists paint with a spirituality that is stunning, and Gifford is no exception.  Isn’t it amazing the mood he captures?  Nothing ephemeral here:  all Gifford’s paintings have a deeply meditative quality that stays with you.   I hope you enjoy his work as much as I do.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Windsor Castle (1860)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, A Coastal Sunset (date unknown)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Valley of the Chug Water (1870)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, La Marina Grande, Capri (1861)

Sanford Robinson Gifford, October in the Catskills (date unknown)

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2 Responses to “The Hudson River School: Sanford Robinson Gifford”

  1. Böhne January 28, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    The so called Venetian Tower (or Frankenturm) was deconstructed in 1875. Is his picture of “the Ruins of Parthenon” really from 1880?

    • bobbalouie January 28, 2013 at 11:15 pm #

      I conducted the research for this post about a year ago. I’d have to go back and see what it shows. However it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the painting includes subject matter that was no longer standing when the painting was completed — especially given the romantic leanings of the Luminist movement of which Gifford was a part. If you research it let me know what you find out.

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