Lucent Dreams: The Art Of Sanford R. Gifford

Judith Bell is an art historian and writer based in Arlington, Virginia.

A leader of the second generation of Hudson River School artists, Luminist Sanford R. Gifford created painting not so much of scenery as of atmosphere.

“Atmosphere,” wrote Asher B. Durand, who along with Thomas Cole constituted the first generation of nineteenth-century American landscape painters, “is felt in the foreground, seen beyond that, and palpable in the distance. It spreads over all objects the color which it receives from the sky in sunlight or cloudlight.”


More than any other American painter of his generation, Sanford Robinson Gifford fulfilled Durand’s directive of atmosphere made palpable. Evocative rather than descriptive, poetic rather than literal, his works capture the ephemeral quality of observing the beauty of the natural world.

One hundred twenty-three years ago, Gifford was the subject of the first monographic exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s history. Now he is reexamined in Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, a major retrospective co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. The seventy paintings reflect on the artist’s travels in America, Europe, and the Middle East and his undisputed mastery of light and shadow.

Gifford was the only one among the Hudson River School artists who was born and raised in the center of the Hudson River Valley, an experience that laid his artistic foundations. Born in Hudson in 1823 to Elihu and Eliza Starbuck Gifford, he was the fourth of eleven children. That same year his father bought a partnership in an iron foundry, becoming sole proprietor in 1831. His father’s subsequent commercial success and prosperity, coupled with a sense of indulgence and generosity in the home, meant that Gifford and his siblings were encouraged to pursue their own directions in life.

Gifford studied at Brown University in 1841-43, the only Hudson River artist to attend college. After dropping out, he struggled to persuade his father to let him study art. An early influence in this choice of vocation was the arrival in Hudson in 1844 of portraitist and landscape painter Henry Ary. The family was intimately acquainted with Ary’s work. Sanford’s older brother Frederick commissioned portraits of himself and his wife from Ary and purchased one of the artist’s landscapes depicting Mount Merino, a Hudson landmark. Gifford and Ary sketched together in the Catskills. The fact that Ary was a recognized success and Gifford’s father was familiar with the established artist’s work helped strengthen Gifford’s argument.

Once Gifford’s father acquiesced, the family’s wealth left him free to pursue his artistic vision without concerning himself with popular tastes or the need to churn out art for the express purpose of sale. He moved to New York City in 1845 to study with John Rubens Smith, a drawing master who taught anatomy, perspective, and drawing. He supplemented his education by drawing casts at the nearby National Academy of Design and attending anatomy lectures at Crosby Street Medical College.

Gifford first focused his artistic efforts on portrait painting, a choice that quickly proved to be an ill fit for his quiet, withdrawn nature. By 1846 he turned his attention to landscape. “During the summer,” he later said, “I made several pedestrian tours in the Catskill Mountains, and together with the great admiration I felt for the works of Cole, developed a strong interest in landscape art, and opened my eyes to a keener perception and more intelligent enjoyment of nature. 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.”


Cole’s accomplishment and influence were momentous. Traditionally, painters were told if they wanted to paint landscapes they should go to Europe and paint in the classical tradition. Cole changed the American sensibility concerning the genre, enabling Americans for the first time to take pride in their native wilds as a basis for art.

Cole’s fame had ascended along with the rise of the Romantic movement, which had at its core the belief in the aesthetic value and transcendental attributes of nature. The Catskills, with their combination of beauty, grandeur, and accessibility to New York City, the country’s largest and wealthiest metropolis, became the leading motif in the American Romantic movement.

“By the 1840s a number of young artists were looking seriously at landscape,” says Kevin Avery, cocurator of the exhibition and associate curator of the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Cole and Durand were now senior artists and landscape garnered more and more attention as the phenomenon of the mobile, affluent, vacationing American first emerged in the midnineteenth century. Many of the landscapes of this period focus on areas like the Hudson River Valley that drew vacationers, and responded to early travelers’ desire for souvenirs of the places they had visited. The mood in Gifford’s work of experiencing the beauty of the natural world at a veiled remove from the world of lower concerns parallels this mid-nineteenth century occupation of escaping the world-weary everyday of city life.” Travel writer George Curtis, with whom Gifford was acquainted, described the travelers who flocked to these natural resorts as Lotus-Eaters, a title borrowed from Tennyson’s poem of the same name. “This referred to The Odyssey,” explains Avery. “Oedipus and his men were attracted to the land of the lotus-eaters where upon consuming this special flower they fell into a dream. That dreaminess of the landscape experience became a dominant part of Gifford’s esthetic.”

Developing an Aesthetic

Gifford spent the summer of 1846 touring and sketching in the Catskills and the Berkshire Mountains. By 1847 he had begun to show his work at the American Art-Union and the National Academy of Design.

The following year Gifford saw the largest exhibition of Cole’s work ever assembled in the memorial exhibition held at the American Art- Union. On view were the straightforward landscape studies as well as Cole’s more ambitious allegorical landscapes that made grandiose historical associations. While he was probably encouraged by Cole’s thorough mining of the American landscape for subject matter, artist and Gifford friend Thomas Worthington Whittredge noted that Gifford said “in general terms that no historical or legendary interest attached to the landscape could help the landscape painter … The dead, the ruined, the weak, did not interest him.”

Gifford worked quietly, without drawing much attention until the National Academy exhibition of 1852. A critic writing in The Literary World observed that “Gifford’s feeling for the higher quality of landscape, space, light, and refinement of form are more than indicated in his present works, and when he shall have overcome some feebleness of execution, … he will express himself with greater decision and correctness. … We have no young artist more sincere in his feeling or less corrupted by erroneous ideas.”


In May 1855, Gifford made his first trip to Europe, where he would stay for two years. He visited the major repositories of art and sketched scenery in England, Scotland, France, the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. The letters he wrote his family during his travels provide the most comprehensive information of any period in his career.

Staying in London, he visited the National Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Painters of Watercolors, and other private and public collections. During this period, he studied not only the work of old masters but also that of more recent active artists such as J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837).

He was familiar with Turner’s work from prints of the artist’s work that hung in his family’s Hudson home and from the writings of English art critic John Ruskin. At first calling Turner’s handling of paint “shamelessly careless,” he gradually came around to appreciating his unique mastery of the symbiotic relationship of color and light that foreshadowed Impressionism. Gifford recorded his thoughts in a note to The Crayon:

“Here I at last saw something of that magnificent light and color which Ruskin claims for his favorite master, and which I must say fully warrants his eloquent eulogies. “The Grand Canal” [sic] I take to be a good example of the best character of Turner’s later style. To give it fair play, it should be looked at from a little distance, and free rein given to the imagination. The whole picture is very light, and the effect gay and brilliant. It is indeed splendid in its bright mid-day sunlight, and in the gorgeous procession of the barges that advances down the canal; there is a varied brilliancy of color I have never seen equaled. In the forms there is great infinity as well as indefiniteness. “

Gifford had the opportunity to meet with Ruskin, where he discussed his misgivings about Turner’s “liberties.” Ruskin responded that Turner “treated his subject as a poet, and not as a topographer; that he painted the impression the scene made upon his mind, rather than literal scenes.”

Although Gifford’s technique continued to differ from Turner’s, this became the course he followed as he developed his own mature style of painting. By 1857, he was fully in stride with this personal direction. That winter in Rome, he made what would be the largest painting of his career. Located in an extinct volcanic crater seventeen miles southeast of Rome, Lake Nemi was a common subject and one painted by both Cole and Turner. Gifford knew these works and adopted the latter’s point of view for his interpretation. In Lake Nethe haze obscuring the late afternoon sun is palpable. The setting sun as focal point–a Gifford hallmark that appears here for the first time–casts a warm light over the hillside and valley, rendering even the water in the lake a blue infused with gold.

With Lake Nemi’s 1858 exhibition at the National Academy of Design, Gifford emerged as a leader of the second generation of Hudson River School painters. The following year he showed his first masterwork of American scenery, Mansfield Mountain, first at the National Academy and then at the Boston Athenaeum. One critic wrote:

“Those who can’t get away from business to see nature among the mountains or by the sea, cannot do better than to visit the Athenaeum gallery and behold nature in art … Among those which are new, are several by Gifford, the most poetical of our American artists, whose pictures are like poet’s dreams. His paintings have a light shade and coloring peculiar to themselves, and they are his children bearing the impress of his genius. There is a soul beauty about them. “

With his return to New York, he set up his studio in the new Tenth Street Studio Building, where such other Hudson River School artists as Frederic Church, Thomas Worthington Whittredge, and Albert Bierstadt worked. Whittredge described how Gifford would disappear from his studio and then reappear months or years later; most summers Gifford sketched in the countryside, returning to his favorite settings in the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains in Vermont, and locales in Maine and Nova Scotia.

Gifford’s fascination with the transfiguring effects of light was ongoing. The 1862 painting Gorge in the Mountains depicts Kaaterskill Clove, a Catskills gorge and favorite subject of Cole’s. While Cole historicized and loaded his paintings with allegorical meaning, Gifford’s expression retains a purity and immediacy that is more about the experience of nature than its symbolic significance. He chose subjects that made appropriate containers for light-filled air and then modified the views to accentuate this quality. In Mansfield Mountain (1859), the mountains rise up on either side of the view, embracing the color-infused atmosphere. In Hunter Mountain, Twilight (1866), Gifford changed the image recorded in his preliminary sketch to create a more pleasing receptacle for light. In the painting he moved the depression in the setting to the center of the composition to more completely complement the ascending curve of the mountain in the background. He considered his view of the ruins of the Parthenon “not a picture of a building but a picture of a day” and emptied the foreground of existing debris, emphasizing instead the horizontal sweep of the distant bay and the mountains. “The really important matter is not the natural object itself,” wrote Gifford, “but the veil or medium through which we see it.”

“Gifford was trying to find a metaphor not for landscape itself but for the effect of contemplating the landscape, the pleasure gleaned from the experience,” says Avery. “This is palpable in the atmosphere he created with such astounding success in his work.”

Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; is at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, March 6–May 16; and goes to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., June 27–September 26.

Bell, Judith


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