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Hudson River School Visions

The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 8, 2003 to February 8, 2004

The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

March 6 to May 16, 2004

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

September 26, 2004 to June 27, 2005

"A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)" by Sanford R. Gifford

"A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 48 by 39 7/8 inches, 1862, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Maria DeWitt Jessup, from the collection of her husband, Morris K. Jessup, 1914

By Carter B. Horsley

Sanford R. Gifford (1823-1880) was a leading member of the second generation of the Hudson River School of landscape painting and, along with John F. Kensett, became one of the country's leading Luminist painters.

His most important and famous painting, "A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)," a 48-by-39 7/8-inch oil on canvas in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a sensational landscape that inspired Eugene Benson, writing in The New-York Commercial Advertiser under the name Proteus, to comment that:

"This picture is a picture of the poet. None more so. And sitting before it, bathed in the affluence and warmth of its light, luxuriating in its color, having our thought steeped in the delicious indolence of its atmosphere, and aroused by the magnificence and wealth of its spirit, we have no care, but, sun-steeped at noon, ask that every pore of our body may became a gate through which sensation may flow, and every nerve an avenue along which may course the subtle messengers charged with the secret of its beauty."

The catalogue notes that the painting does not depict Kauterskill (or Kaaterskill or Catskill) Falls as long popularly assumed but Haines Falls, which is on a different [western] side of the "clove" from Kauterskill Falls. The clove is at the eastern edge of the Catskills not too far from the Village of Hudson, New York.

Like many of his Hudson River School colleagues, Gifford traveled abroad but his greatest works remained American, and principally, Hudson River and Catskill Mountains subjects. He tended to shy away from giant works and indeed his smaller paintings are avidly collected to a greater extent than those of his colleagues. One of the nice things about this exhibition is the inclusion of several small, finished studies for "A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove)."

If "Gorge" is radiant and expansive, it is also transcendent and sublime, two concepts high in the vocabulary of American's best 19th Century artists. This painting is startling, almost blindingly so. If it were not for the bending tree in the left foreground, it would be a very stark abstraction of golden haze. Golden light is one of Gifford's special delights, just as the glorious riot of autumnal colors is the trademark of Jasper Francis Cropsey, another major second generation Hudson River School painter. Gifford's oeuvre is considerably more narrow in its palette than Cropsey's, but much more vibrant than that of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, the leading first generation Hudson River School painters.

"Gorge" is a remarkable achievement and without any obvious parallels. It is one of his largest works and one of the few major works that is vertical in format. In his catalogue essay, entitled "Gifford and the Catskills," Kevin J. Avery notes that the artist's oil images "evince a deliberate and progressive distortion of the actual terrain of the clove to echo the sun's circular shape, as if the gorge were somehow its product. The veiled light fills the now-curved contours of the clove, while the birch tree, the rocks it the foreground, and the shadows of the mountain at the right continue the arc of the blue sky around the sun's yellow penumbra. The foreground elements in particular hint at the convention- seen almost too frequently elsewhere in Gifford's work of the ovate, vignette-type landscape composition, typically realized in a vertical format. Moreover, the delicate reach of the birch tree toward the elusive solar oculus, and the enveloping, womb-like form of the clove in the 1862 picture intimate the progressive anthropomorphism of the conception."

"Kauterskill Falls" by Gifford

"Kauterskill Falls," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 14 ¾ by 12 ½ inches, 1871, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Katherine French Rockwell

Gifford, of course, did paint the celebrated Kauterskill Falls as evidenced by the lovely small oil he executed in 1871 that is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The catalogue provides the following commentary about this lovely work:

"When Thomas Cole arrived in the Catskills in 1825, probably stimulated like others by [James Fenimore] Cooper's lively descriptions, he made the falls the subject of paintings that earned him his earliest renown. Not long before Cole visited the site, an observation platform had been erected at the head of the falls; later, the proprietor of the Laurel House, built near the falls in 1852, dammed the stream called Lake Creek feeding the cascade and charged visitors for the privilege of witnessing the gushing spectacle that he controlled. The Laurel House was where Gifford stayed with his colleague and friend Jervis McEntee in the autumn of 1871; this excursion resulted in several modest paintings whose subjects, along with a few western and seashore scenes, now formed a minatoiry among the many more foreign subjects that Gifford was painting and submitting for public exhibition. Gifford's image of Kaaterskill Falls here may be marked more by artifice than by versimilitude. He deposits the spectator on lower Lake Creek at the base of Kaaterskill Clove for seems an impossibly long view of the cascade, as seen through the trees decorously arched over the stream. (However, it is possible that such a prospect was intentionally cleared for tourists in Gifford's time.)"

"Sunset Over The Palisades on the Hudson" by Gifford

"Sunset Over The Palisades on the Hudson," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 by 34 1/8 inches, 1879, private collection

A much later work, "Sunset Over The Palisades On The Hudson," a 18 1/8-by-34 1/8-inch oil on canvas that he painted in 1879, is the quintessential Gifford painting, an evocative work that epitomizes the glories of the Hudson River and the lush nostalgia of approaching twilight. Like many of John F. Kensett's Luminist shore scenes, Gifford has pushed the landmass to one side and slightly animated the waters with sailboats and the sky with minimal clouds.

Large detail of "An Indian Summer's Day on the Hudson Tappan Zee" by Gifford

Large detail of "An Indian Summer's Day On The Hudson Tappan Zee," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 14 by 30 inches, 1868, private collection, Washington, D.C.

Another Gifford masterpiece is "An Indian Summer's Day On The Hudson Tappan Zee," a 14-by-30-inch oil on canvas that was painted in 1868 and is now in a private collection in Washington, D.C.

The catalogue notes that "Gifford's exploration of the possibilities of minimalist compositions was unrivaled among landscape painters of his generation," adding that "Although some of John F. Kensett's `Last Summer's Work' paintingsare equally reductive, they were executed later, and it is unclear whether or not he regarded them as finished." "Kensett did not live to exhibit any of these works publicly, and it is uncertain whether he would have even considered doing so," it continued.

"Tappan Zee" is perhaps Gifford's most beautiful painting. The mountains on the west side of the river are barely visible. The tall white sails of boats in the distance balance the left side of the composition with the autumnal foliage on the right side. The waters are calm. This is a memorable mirage, and definitely more abstract than "Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, On The Hudson," a beautiful 1866 Gifford in the collection of Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, given by Miss Annette I. Young in memory of Professor D. Cady Eaton and Mr. Innis Young.

Large detail of "Morning on the Hudson, Haverstraw Bay" by Gifford

"Morning on the Hudson, Haverstraw Bay," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 14 ¼ by 30 ¼ inches, 1866, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago.

"Tappan Zee" also bears comparison with another 1866 Gifford Work, "Morning on the Hudson, Haverstraw Bay," a 14 ¼-by 30 ¼-inch oil on canvas in the Daniel J. Terra Collection in Chicago of the Terra Foundation for the Arts. "Morning on the Hudson looks northwest from Ossining, New York, from the immediate vicinity of the famous Sing Sing Penitentiary. The focal mountain, on the western shore at Haverstraw, New York, is High Tor, rising more than eight hundred feet above the river. Hook Mountain, viewed from toward the southwest from the southern shore of Croton Point, about two miles north of Ossining, is second in height only to High Tor among the Palisades that line the river's western shore from New York City to Haverstraw. The catalogue suggests that the Haverstraw painting the "Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson," may have been pendants and states that both remained in the artist's possession until his death.

In the Directors' foreword to the exhibition's catalogue, Philippe de Montebello, the Metropolitan's director, and Earl A. Powell III, the National's director, provide the following commentary about Gifford:

"Sanford R. Gifford enjoys the special distinction of having been the first artist honored at the Metropolitan Museum with an exhibition devoted solely to his work. Like [Frederic] Church and such Hudson River painters as John F. Kensett and Worthington Whittredge, Gifford was among fifty prominent New York artists, literati, and businessmen who convened at the Union League Club in 1869 to draft the original resolution for a municipal art institution. In 1870, Gifford joined the thirteen-member subcommittee that selected the Metropolitan Museum's first officers. When Gifford died in 1880, the Museum's first director, Luigi di Cesnola, welcomed the opportunity to honor him at the Museum's new (and present) Central Park home. As proposed by Gifford's colleagues, patrons and friends several of them founders and trustees of the Museum themselves a generous representation (160) of his paintings was selected for a six-month showing."

In the catalogue's preface and acknowledgements, Kevin J. Avery, associate curator at the Metropolitan, and Franklin Kelly, senior curator of American and British Paintings at the National, provide the following commentary about Gifford:

"Sanford Robinson Gifford was one of the leading members of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Like his contemporaries Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper F. Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, and John F. Kensett, Gifford played a key role in role in establishing landscape painting as the preeminent mode of art in mid-nineteenth-century America. Acclaimed in his own time, as now, for the masterful effects of light and atmosphere in his paintings, Gifford was perhaps the most technically accomplished and sophisticated of all the Hudson River School artists, especially in his use of thin glazes to achieve subtle transitions from dark to light. Such ability, combined with a highly refined artistic sensibility, enabled Gifford to create some of the most deeply evocative and richly resonant landscapes of his era, as his contemporary Henry T. Tuckerman observed, in the Book of the Artists: 'they do not dazzle, they win; they appeal to our calm and thoughtful appreciation; they minister to our most gentle and gracious sympathies, to our most tranquil and congenial observation.'"

"Research into Gifford's working methods," the curators continued, "has revealed that he probably prepared his studies not merely to rehearse his `chief pictures' but also to advertise them to prestigious patrons, who would request amplified versions of compositions that he showed them in his studio. Less frequently, it seems, he also fashioned reduced-scale replicas for admirers of his exhibition pictures, lavishing as much artistry and skill on these as on the large paintings. Sometimes, with certain subjects, one feels that his effects of light and air, beautifully achieved in a cabinet-sized work, could not effectively be re-created on a larger canvas. Gifford must have sensed that, too, for unlike Church, Bierstadt, Cropsey, and even Kensett he never painted a picture wider or taller than sixty inches; only one of his major works exceeded fifty-four inches in width. However, in his own range, Gifford was unsurpassed in the contemplative interpretation of landscape. The only difficulties encountered in making our selection are the result of his delicacy of technique, which, while effective in conveying his rare sensibility and skill at artistic expression, also has rendered many of his works vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time, environmental factors, and inept cleaning and restorations. Several well-known paintings that might be expected in a Gifford retrospective regrettably were omitted because they were deemed too compromised by their condition. Yet, we can take consolation in the fact that, of the more than 700 paintings recorded in the 1880 Memorial Catalogue, more than half remain undiscovered, including a substantial number of major works undeniably, a rich incentive for further research and investigation by scholars in the future."

Gifford's works tend to be idealistic merely than strictly representational and are characterized by a poetic serenity in which reality is distilled into an imagined "perfection" of scene. Gifford, however, was not formulaic and at times produced some works that were markedly and aggressively different from his normal late afternoon pastoral scenes. One recently discovered work from 1861 now in a private collection, for example, "A Twilight in the Catskills," which unfortunately is not in the exhibition but is reproduced in color in the fine catalogue which is available in soft-cover for $40 from the Metropolitan Museum's bookstore, is a dark, brooding, indeed, almost foreboding, work. Highly abstract, it is a long horizontal painting with dead trees at either end, a dark orange sky at the top, a bright light yellow band of sky just beneath, and the dark silhouettes of mountains in the middle with some details of foliage and a meandering river in the bottom and center.

In his catalogue essay, entitled "Gifford and the Catskills," Kevin J. Avery discusses this work:

"Nothing in Gifford's previous work (or in much of what came later) prepares the spectator for the almost lurid effect of the infernal glow of the just-departed sun, visible beneath the smoldering blanket of clouds, and below, the gloomy gorge abandoned by the light of day. The surprisingly Expressionist tenor of the picture is abetted by the conspicuously skeletal trees, either charred or withered that, silhouetted against the yellow and red light, frame the scene. A black bear (or cub) is seen wandering from the left toward the stream in the foreground flowing away from the viewer, down an unseen waterfall, to the creek in the gorge (presumably, Kaaterskill Creek). The liquid looks less like water than lava."

The exhibition includes two paintings from 1864, each entitled "A Twilight in the Adirondacks," that recall the "heat" of "A Twilight in the Catskills," but they are much lighter in spirit and palette. They are both extremely lovely and fine works and the catalogue notes that they represent "two of the at least four known versions" of the subject.

In his catalogue essay entitled "Nature Distilled: Gifford's Vision of Landscape," Franklin Kelly provides the following commentary:

"Gifford's paintingsdid not copy nature, were not mere statements of fact, and did not depend on connections to the historic and legendary. Instead, they were addressed to the emotions and the imagination. They engaged viewers in an exercise of seeing that was not interrupted by any distractions, whether associations or specific details. In this way, the act of viewing the picture became a self-contained one, removing the observer from everything but the actuality of the present.Gifford's paintings thus did something that the works of most of his contemporaries could not. Like those of George Inness, they were not meant to evoke other places or other ideas but to assert their own reality as works of art. Their paintings were not windows to some other world or time but rather had to be enjoyed for what they were. Seeing a painting by Gifford was thus an experience complete in itself."

Gifford's father Elihu bought a partnership in an iron foundry in Hudson, New York in 1823 which he renamed Starbuck, Gifford and Company and subsequently he founded the Farmers' Bank and organized the Hudson and Berkshire Railroad. Sanford Gifford had five brothers and five sisters and his mother, Eliza Starbuck Gifford, founded the Hudson Orphan Asylum in 1846.

Sanford Gifford studied for a couple of years at Brown University and in 1861 he served with the New York Seventh Regiment of the National Guard based in New York City, and spent part of each spring and summer, until 1863, protecting Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In New York, Gifford lived at the Studio Building on the north side of Tenth Street to the west of Fifth Avenue, the country's most important artists' residence. Gifford got his studio in this famous building (See
The City Review article on the building, which was demolished in 1951) from another artist, Jervis McEntee.

In his essay, Mr. Kelly observes that one of Worthington Whittredge's greatest works, Twilight in the Shawangunks, "which resulted from an 1864 sketching campaign with Gifford and McEntee, is unquestionably a descendant of Gifford's A Twilight in the Catskills, as is Gifford's own Hunter Mountain, Twilight of 1866."

Another 1866 Gifford work is "Hunter Mountain, Twilight," a 30 5/8-by-54 1/8-inch oil on canvas that is also in the Daniel J. Terra Collection of the Terra Foundation for the Arts in Chicago.

Gifford made two trips to Europe, one to the Near East and two the American West in addition to his many New England excursions. His travels "resulted in paintings that comprised nearly half of what he considered to be the best examples of his artistic production," wrote Heidi Applegate in her catalogue essay entitled "A Traveler by Instinct." According to Ms. Applegate, only Church among his contemporary artists traveled more.

By and large his non-American paintings are not up to his American work with the exception of a few works such as "Lake Nemi," a 38 5/8-by-60 3/8-inch oil executed in 1856-7 and in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art.

"Early October in the White Mountains" by Gifford

"Early October in the White Mountains," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 14 1/8 by 24 inches, 1860, Washington University Gallery of Art. Saint Louis, Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905

One of Gifford's loveliest works is "Early October in the White Mountains, an oil on canvas that measures 14 1/8 by 24 inches. The 1860 composition is in the collection of the Washington University Gallery of Art in Saint Louis, bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905. "Framing trees, repoussoir elements, and other aspects of traditional Claudian compositional formulas are completely absent," the catalogue notes, "giving the painting a remarkable sense of reductivity and spareness. Also notable is the simplified geometry that divides the painting into two equal bands of earth and sky, with only the central mountain peaks (which are themselves visually echoed by the placement of the two cows in the foreground) reaching above the center line. The whole scene is expressive of the utmost peacefulness. The smooth lake, the fine mountains, and the motionless trees, all give the impression of perfect repose; while the rich, harmonious tone of color is like a tranquil breath of satisfied completeness."

"The Wilderness" by Sanford Gifford

"The Wilderness," by Sanford R. Gifford, oil on canvas, 30 by 54 5/16 inches, 1860, The Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from The Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott

In "The Wilderness," an 1860 oil on canvas that measures 30 by 54 5/16 inches that is in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art, Gifford depicts some Indians on the shore of a lake with a majestic mountain in the distance. The catalogue notes that "Although likely not meant to portray a specific mountain in an identifiable location, the shape of the peak in The Wilderness suggests that of Mount Katahdin in Maine."

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