Sanford Robinson Gifford

Sanford Robinson Gifford by Eastman Johnson (1880)

Today I am looking at an American painter, Sanford Robinson Gifford, who was a leading member of the second generation of Hudson River School artists.  The artwork of the Hudson River School captured the rugged beauty of the American landscape and celebrated and venerated the heady era of manifest destiny.  In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term Manifest Destiny, which was the belief that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle the entire continent of North America.  The second generation of Hudson River School painters set out from the New York area to explore more far-flung regions of America. Their painting documented the westward expansion and the “land grab” which underpinned the concept of Manifest Destiny. During the Civil War, their majestic images shown in their paintings of an unspoiled West provided hope for post-war reconciliation and the promise of expanses of wild country, full of promise and lands which were unscarred by battle.

Head of a Man, with Various Studies by Staford Robinson Gifford (c.1850)

Sanford Robinson Gifford was born in Greenfield, New York 0n July 10th 1823.  He was the fourth of the eleven children of Quaker ironmaker Elihu Gifford and his wife Eliza Robinson Starbuck. Most of his childhood was spent in Hudson, New York, a town on the banks of the upper reaches of the Hudson River, across from the Catskill Mountains.  Following normal schooling, Gifford entered Brown University in 1842. He left college after completing two years, and moved to New York City in 1845 to study art. He studied drawing, perspective and anatomy under the British watercolourist and drawing-master, John Rubens Smith, who in 1806 had emigrated from London to the USA and set up successful drawing schools in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.  He also attended drawing classes at the National Academy of Design and studied the human figure in anatomy classes at the Crosby Street Medical College.

In 1846 Gifford visited the Berkshire Hills and the Catskill Mountains, sketching en plein air. He thoroughly enjoyed his sketching trips, once writing to a friend:

…”These studies together with the great admiration I felt for the works of [Thomas] 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 painters’ life I was unable to return to portrait painting…”

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine by Sanford Robinson Gifford

The American Art Union bought and exhibited some of Gifford’s first landscape paintings in 1847. In 1851 he was elected an associate, and in 1854 an academician, of the National Academy of Design.  He must have taken great pleasure in his landscape depictions as from that time on he concentrated on the landscape genre, becoming one of the finest artists of the Hudson River School. Gifford loved the freedom of the outdoors and travelled extensively to sketch landscapes which he would use later for future paintings.  On his trips he would often write to his father recording his experiences.  These letters home would, he said, serve the double purpose of letter and journal, and be an economy of time. He also asked his father to number the letters sequentially and keep them all together.

Study Of Windsor Castle by Sanford Robinson Gifford

In the summer of 1855 Gifford crossed the Atlantic and visited England, Scotland and Paris.  He then spent the winter of 1855 completing paintings from the numerous sketches he had made.

Lake Nemi by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1856)

In the Autumn of 1856, he travelled to Italy and rented a studio in Rome and, during that winter he painted pictures of the surrounding area including Lake Nemi which he visited in October 1856.  In a letter he described the scene:

“…We were high up above the lake. On one side in the foreground were some picturesque houses and ruined walls—a tall dark cypress, rising out of a rich mass of foliage, cut strongly against the lake, distance, and sky…”

A Home in the Wilderness by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1866)

By capturing scenes at sunset, Gifford was able to record the subtle effects of atmosphere and light that would become his trademark. Gifford was a true Luminist, a member of the Luminism art movement associated with many American landscape painters of the 1850’s to 1870’s  Their artwork was characterized by effects of light in landscapes, through using aerial perspective, and concealing visible brushstrokes. The landscape art of the Luminist emphasized serenity and calmness.  It focused on reflective water and soft, hazy skies but as part of often melodramatic, magnificent, oversized landscapes as the artist intended to capture the immenseness as they viewed their subject on location. An example of this Lumanism is his 1866 painting entitled A Home in the Wilderness. Gifford’s view of Mount Hayes in New Hampshire records human intrusion into a remote landscape. On the left riverbank a log cabin stands amid a recently cleared patch of land with several tree stumps, while figures in its doorway greet a man who has arrived with a canoe of supplies.

Lake Maggiore by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1859)

During the spring of 1857 whilst still in Rome, Gifford spent time with fellow American artists Worthington Whittredge, William H. Beard and Albert Bierstadt.  Gifford and Bierstadt left Rome in May 1857 and set off on a walking tour of southern Italy.  Gifford completed his European tour with visits to Innsbruck, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Berlin and Paris, before returning to the United States at the end of the summer. 

Photograph of the 10th Street Studio Building, New York (1870)

On his return Gifford rented studio Number 19 in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City.  The Tenth Street Studio Building was constructed in New York City in 1857.  It was  situated at 51 West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan and was the first modern facility designed solely to serve the needs of artists. It became the centre of the New York art world for the remainder of the 19th century.  Gifford retained his studio until his death.

Twilight in the Catskills by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1861)

 Over the next few years Gifford also made frequent summer trips to various north-eastern locales including the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains in Vermont, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Maine and Nova Scotia.

Sanford Gifford in uniform (1861)

The American Civil War broke out in April 1861 and Gifford enlisted in New York’s Seventh Regiment and marched to the defence of Washington.  Several paintings resulted from this experience, including his 1864 work entitled Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, in July 1863 ,

Sunday Morning in the Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, in July 1863
Night Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment New York at Arlington Heights, Virginia by Sanford Gifford (1861)

Another was his night scene entitled Night Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment New York at Arlington Heights, Virginia which he completed in 1861.

Near Palermo by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1874)

In 1868 Gifford once again travelled to Europe, and again visited the English and French capitals.  Whilst in Paris he met with a fellow American Hudson River painter, Jervis McEntee and his wife.  McEntee was a to some extent a lesser-known figure of the 19th-century American art world but apart from his paintings, McEntee’s journals are an enduring legacy, documenting the life of a New York painter during and after the Gilded Age.  From Paris Gifford spent the summer visiting the Alps and Sicily before wintering in Rome.

Galleries of the Stelvio, Lake Como by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1878)

Gifford was always stimulated by the awe-inspiring Italian landscape and his painting Galleries of the Stelvio, Lake Como exudes a moment of pure artistic beauty.   Gifford’s used shades of pastel blues and pinks to capture the hazy quality of a warm Italian summer afternoon. Look how the juxtaposition of light and shadow draws attention to the natural curve of the rock cliff exploited by and altered by man’s hand.  The curve in the wall gives one the feeling of motion through the road tunnel and to the side of the road we see a couple looking over at the boats below and the still waters of the beautiful lake.  Almost if we are in the tunnel\ we begin to feel the coolness of the tunnel in comparison to the area around the lake which is exposed to the sun.

Siout, Egypt by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1874)

In 1869 Gifford set off on his travels once more.  This time he journeyed to Egypt where he and some friends. He hired a boat and took a two-month  voyage from Cairo down the Nile River to the first cataract .  Although many American artists left their home shores, few ventured much further than the European Continent.  Sanford Gifford was one of the very few who ventured further afield.

On March 4 he reached the village of Siout (Asyut), on the western bank of the Nile, and this was the starting point of a great caravan route running through the Libyan Desert to the Sudan. The town was well known for being picturesque and for its history, having been the capital of the thirteenth province of Upper Egypt during antiquity and the birthplace of Plotinus, the great Neoplatonic philosopher. Gifford was taken with the town and noted in his journal the reasons for depicting it in his painting.  He wrote:

“…Looking westward, the town with its domes and minarets lay between us and the sun, bathed in a rich and beautiful atmosphere. Behind, on the right, were the yellow cliffs of the Libyan mts., running back into the tender grades of distance. Between us and the town were fields of grain, golden green with the transparent light. On the right was a tent with sheep and beautiful horses, the sunlight sparkling on a splendid white stallion. On the left the road ran in, with a fountain and figures of men and women and camels. The whole glowing and gleaming under the low sun…”

The painting, simply entitled Siout, Egypt, is one of Gifford’s finest works in which he depicted Egypt.

Constantinople from the Golden Horn by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1880)

From Egypt, Gifford travelled to the Middle East with fellow artist, Alfred Craven, via the Suez Canal, where his itinerary included Syria, Jerusalem, Samaria, Damascus, Greece and Turkey. Gifford travelled to Constantinople in 1869 and he wrote about the time in his journal:

“…boats and costumes on the water on either side were all aglow with color, while through the purple haze of the distance flashed a thousand little golden lights from the windows of the Seraglio and the mosque of St. Sophia…”

Gifford final port of call was Venice which he reached in June 1869 and it was from here that he took a sea passage back to the United States at the beginning of September.

Portrait of Mary Cecilia Gifford by Stanford Robinson Gifford (1878)

Sanford Gifford married Mary Cecilia Canfield in 1877, at age fifty-four.

Autumn, a Wood Path by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1876)

I end this blog with my favourite painting by Gifford. It is his 1876 work entitled Autumn, a Wood Path. Gifford created several paintings depicting forest interiors, including this one set amid full autumnal blaze. The dense forest path is enclosed in a network of overarching trees which casts shadows on the rugged ground below, restricting sunlight to haphazard patches. A solitary hiker is visible in the distance.

Three years after his marriage, Gifford became ill while on a trip to Lake Superior and was brought back to New York where he was diagnosed as having contracted pneumonia following a bout of malarial fever.  On August 29th, 1880, Gifford died in New York city, aged 57, and was buried at Hudson City Cemetery, Hudson, Columbia County, New York. His death was seen as a tragedy for American art. He was memorialized in 1880 by the publication of a series of addresses given at the Century Association and by a large retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1881.  A compilation of a catalogue raisonné was published in 1881 and recorded that he had completed more than seven hundred paintings during his career.

The Rev. Dr. Bellows, who several times has officiated at the funerals of well-known American painters, delivered a touching and beautiful address in the Gifford mansion at Hudson. He spoke of Gifford’s love of his country, saying:

“…Patriotism, in the speaker’s opinion, was at one time a greater force in Gifford’s life than even love of Art; and his resolve to fight as a private soldier in the late war for the Union was greater in its influence upon the man, and in its possession of him, than even his devotion to his profession…”

Fur Traders descending the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham

Fur Traders descending the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham (1845)

For My Daily Art Display today I cross the Atlantic and return to the nineteenth century in order to discover the art of George Caleb Bingham.  Bingham was born in 1811 in Augusta County Virginia.  He was the second of seven children to Mary and Henry Bingham and his early life should have been a life of plenty as his grandfather on his mother’s side passed on to his mother and father the family mill and a vast tract of land along with a number of slaves and servants.  However when Caleb was seven years old, an unwise decision to stand surety for a friend’s debt by his father lost the family everything.  It was time to move on and the family went West in search of their fortune.

The family settled in Missouri in the small town of Franklin in Howard County, a few miles north of the great Missouri River, and eventually Caleb’s father became a county judge.  Sadly, when Caleb was only twelve, his thirty-eight year old father contracted malaria and died.   The family moved to a farm just outside the town.  Caleb spent much of his leisure time down by the river and many of his paintings he did as an adult featured this magnificent waterway.   Caleb became an apprentice to a cabinet maker when he was sixteen years old and he was put to work painting signs.  A few years earlier Caleb Bingham had met Chester Harding the portrait painter who had passed through Howard County looking for work.  The artist had sparked an interest in art with Caleb, so much so that the teenager started to paint portraits of the local people which he sold for twenty dollars.

Bingham married Sarah Hutchinson in 1836 and the couple moved to the city St Louis where he was able to expand his artistic career and soon made a name for himself as a portrait painter.  He travelled to Philadelphia where he spent some time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Washington.   He returned back to his Missouri home in 1844 and started painting river scenes, one of which is my featured painting today.  As far as his paintings are concerned, it is reckoned that the period between 1845 and 1855 he produced his greatest works.    In 1848 his wife died and his mother moved in with him to look after his children.  She too died three years later.  In 1856 Caleb made a trip to Europe with his second wife Eliza Thomas.   He visited Paris and was able to fulfil one of his ambitions which was to study the works of the Great Masters at the Louvre.  They moved on to Germany where the family lived in an artists’ colony and he enrolled at the Dusseldorf School of painting where he studied historical painting.

Eventually he and his family returned to America and he continued his lucrative career as a portraitist.  He also fulfilled another of his ambitions; he entered politics and held positions in the state legislature of Missouri and later became president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and was appointed their first chief of police.  His second wife died in an asylum in 1876 and soon after he married for a third time.  He became the first Professor of Art at the University of Missouri but he died in 1879, early into this tenure.

The painting I am featuring today in My Daily Art Display is entitled Fur Traders descending the Missouri which he completed in 1845.    This was one of his genre paintings of everyday life on the Missouri River.  He loved to depict the river boatmen and fur traders whose livelihood was tied up with this vast waterway.  In some ways Bingham’s painting was out of date and it really was just his nostalic look back on the past as by 1845 when he completed this work, the world of the lone hunters and trappers bringing their pelts to trading posts by canoe was over, superseded by the big companies which shipped their commodities up and down the river by steamer and barge.  The painting was originally titled French Trader, Half Breed Son.  It was quite common in those days for fur traders to take up with Native American women.  However when first exhibited the American Art Union considered the title to be, what we would now term, “not politically correct” and so the Art Union renamed it, hence its present title.  In front of us we see an old French fur trader, wearing his liberty hat along with his son with their cargo, riding a dugout canoe along the shimmering Missouri River.  In the centre of the canoe is their cargo of furs atop of which is a dead duck which will provide supper for the duo.   In the prow of the craft is a tethered animal.  I say “animal” for to me it looks like a cat but doing some research into the painting I believe it is supposed to be a small bear cub!

The light in the painting adds a haunting quality to the work and this is where I give you another “-ism” to think about – Luminism and the American Luminists.    The term luminism came into being in the mid-twentieth century when art historians used the term to describe a 19th-century American painting style that arose as a derivative of the Hudson River School, examples of which I featured on Feb 4th and Feb 9th.  Luminism was a retrospective name given by art historians and was not a term used by the luminist artist themselves nor did they align themselves with the Hudson River School of painters. The landscapes of Luminists could be characterised by the use of clear and cool colours.  It was hard to detect brushstrokes in paintings done by the luminists.  These artists liked to paint very large works emphasising nature’s grand scale that emphasized tranquillity, reflective water and soft hazy skies.

Today’s featured painting was looked upon as Caleb Bingham’s most famous,  evoking an era in America’s early history.  There is no question that the painting today is a prime example of luminism.  I am amazed by the aura of serenity and stillness I detect in this painting.  The composition is well balanced.   There is no hint of any motion and yet we know the small craft is carrying its passengers downstream.  Caleb Bingham will have seen such sights many times over when he lived near the banks of the Missouri.  It was thanks to the paintings of the likes of Bingham that folk back in the East learnt about the pioneering push to the West as although cameras had been invented before the time of this painting, photographs were expensive to produce and so for the ordinary people works of art were their window to the West.

The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak by Albert Bierstadt (1863)

My Daily Art Display today features two Americans and a mountain.  The two Americans are the landscape artist Albert Bierstadt and the US Army brigadier general and explorer Frederick West Lander.  The mountain in question is Lander’s Peak, named after the explorer.

Albert Bierstadt was a German-American painter and his main contribution to American art was his landscapes of the newly discovered American West.  He was born in Solingen, Germany in 1830 and three years later he and his family emigrated to America establishing their first American home in New Bedford Massachusetts. As a teenager he acquired a love for art.  In his early twenties he returned to his homeland and studied art at the Düsseldorf School in Düsseldorf.  On his return to America in 1857 he turned his artistic attention to the landscape of New England and upstate New York and became part of the Hudson River School of painters.  This group of 19th century artists was influenced by the Romanticism movement and their landscape paintings concentrated on the lands around the Hudson River Valley which included the Catskill, Adirondack and White mountains.   It was from within this group that another painting genre evolved.  It was called luminism, which was an American landscape painting style of the 1850’s – 1870’s which was characterised by effects of light in landscapes. The use of aerial perspective and a hiding of visible brushstrokes were also characters of this style of painting.   These luminist landscapes accentuated an aura of tranquillity and often depicted stretches of calm water above which were soft hazy skies.

It was two years later in 1859 that Bierstadt met up with Frederick West Lander who at the time was working for the US government as a land surveyor.  Lander, who was ten years older than Bierstadt, was a military man, who after having studied in various military academies became a civil engineer and an army officer.  The American government employed him to survey the land out to the west so as to find a suitable route for the Pacific railroad.   This was a hazardous occupation for he and his team of surveyors had not only to contend with the often inhospitable climate but they had to deal with the Native Indians, who fought against the incursion into their homeland.

Bierstadt accompanied Lander on one of these transcontinental surveys which was to forge a passage west and which would become known as Lander Road.  This became a popular route for future wagon trains crossing Wyoming and Oregon.  It was during this journey of discovery that Bierstadt made many sketches of the landscapes he encountered and on his return home he would convert his rough sketches into many majestic landscape paintings.  These were very popular with collectors in the American East who were willing to pay high prices for his works of art as there was a great desire to learn more about their newly-discovered lands to the West. 

My Daily Art Display today is one Bierstadt completed in 1863 shortly before he returned back to the West on another journey of discovery.  The oil on canvas painting is entitled The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak.  It was a very large painting, measuring 187cms x 307cms (approximately 6ft by 10ft).  Bierstadt’s works were often of this size and some of his contemporaries believed this was solely due to his egotistical manner.  It was probably more to do with their jealousy and the fact that his large works dwarfed their smaller offerings.

The setting for this landscape painting is of the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains of west Wyoming.   The mountain, seen in the central background of the painting, was given the name Lander’s Peak by Bierstadt in honour of  Lander, who had died on the Civil War battlefield the previous year. This major work of Bierstadt received great acclaim.  This wonderful painting manages to capture the vastness of the American landscape and the nature of the undeveloped lands that he and Lander’s survey party encountered.   Bierstadt in this painting, by the careful use of brushstrokes, manages to convey to us a sense of awe of the untainted landscape as it was at that time.     Like many of his fellow Hudson River Valley artists, Bierstadt believed that through art, moral and spiritual change could be achieved. 

The beauty of this painting is breath-taking with its high snow-covered peaks soaring upwards into the sky.  In the middle-ground we see a waterfall gushing water into the mirror-smooth lake.  I love how the sunlight streams through the clouds to light up this cascading torrent.  It is the effective use of luminism which gives this painting the “wow factor”.   It adds a mood of tranquillity, peace and calmness to the work.  The vegetation around the lake is lush and green and the location was an ideal stop-over place.  In the foreground we see a Shoshone Indian encampment with its warriors and their horses.

The painting was sold to a private collector James McHenry in 1865 for $25,000, which was an enormous sum of money in those days. The artist later bought back the work of art and gave it to his brother Edward.  Bierstadt was a prolific painter completing over five hundred works.  Sadly a large number of them were lost when his Irvington studio was destroyed by fire.  Bierstadt died in New York in 1902 aged 72.