Spotlight Essay: Sanford Robinson Gifford

Sanford Robinson Gifford
Sanford Robinson Gifford, Rheinstein, Early October in the White Mountains, Venetian Sails: A Study

Spotlight Essay: Sanford Robinson Gifford, Rheinstein, 1872–74, Early October in the White Mountains, 1860, and Venetian Sails: A Study, 1873
December 2013; updated 2016

Jennifer Padgett
PhD candidate, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Three works by Sanford Robinson Gifford in the collection of the Kemper Art Museum, while depicting greatly varied locations and subjects, together form a group that illuminates the role of travel in nineteenth-century landscape paintings by American artists. As both a thematic motif and an activity necessary to generate views of distant places, travel played an integral part in the production and reception of Gifford’s works. In many cases he would look back to scenes witnessed years earlier and access his memory of visual encounters to create paintings that appealed to the far-reaching imaginations of his American audience. The placid stretch of New Hampshire’s Androscoggin River in Early October in the White Mountains, the romantic vision of a medieval castle along the Rhine presented in Rheinstein, and the accumulation of boats staged before the maritime city in Venetian Sails: A Study constitute a complementary triad that highlights the relationship between real places and imaginative visions in Gifford’s work.1 Each of the images reveals—whether in the freshness of a pastoral scene within national bounds or through sentimentalized views of the Old World—the artist’s interest in traveling to a captivating location and subsequently depicting it as an idealized realm separate from the developments of modern life and industrial progress.

Early October in the White Mountains, painted by Gifford in 1860, presents a New Hampshire locale in which nature and human presence appear to exist in peaceful harmony. The even tones and subtle color transitions of the painting unite foreground, middle ground, and background, with the peaks of the Presidential Range in the center framed by a wide horizontal view. The Androscoggin River stretches across the foreground, depicted as a remarkably undisturbed surface whose mirrorlike reflection repeats visual elements farther back—the mountain outline and the tree-lined banks of the river—to create a visual dynamic that collapses distinct spatial zones into the unified representational order of the picture plane. The emphatically horizontal orientation of the painting conveys a sense of tranquillity, providing an even balance between the lower register with the water and valley and the upper half with the mountain peaks and sky portraying a still and stable realm. The cows in the center and the farmhouse far across the valley on the left, with a tract of open and inviting land, convey agricultural activity being carried out by humans, whose absence reinforces the scene’s utter stillness.

Gifford’s representation of the White Mountains as a serene locale omits any visual references to the technological developments and modern conveniences that made the attainment of such a view possible for him and others. The White Mountains of New Hampshire were a popular destination for artists and tourists in the late nineteenth century, as the continued development of the region’s railroad system allowed for more convenient access to the range.2 Easy travel routes from the metropolitan areas of Boston and New York led to an influx of tourism, and grand resort hotels opened throughout the mountains to accommodate the growing crowds of visitors. Over several decades more than four hundred artists traveled to paint the scenery, and subjects such as Crawford Notch and Mount Washington became popular motifs in the landscape paintings they produced.3 During this period of burgeoning tourism, Gifford’s painting would have connected to the experience of Americans who visited the locale for an escape from increasingly industrialized cities, yet his treatment of the scene imagines an even more dramatic remove from the realities of modern life. The suffusion of atmospheric light and the balanced composition intimate a frozen moment within a world apart, heightening the sense of an idealized encounter with nature.

The image conveys the romantic suggestion of a world separate from modern developments with a striking sense of immediacy for the viewer. Gifford’s travels to the location and his pictorial strategies for conveying visual experience are both crucial factors in establishing this effect. He visited the White Mountains first in 1854 and returned multiple times during his career, sometimes staying at the location for months. He likely based Early October on a sketch he made during a trip in 1859, as the composition and viewing angle of the geographic features of this painting bear close similarity to a drawing from his 1859 portfolio.4 He mediated the lived experience of viewing the mountain range by first sketching en plein air, then transforming the scene through oil paint in a manner that suggests the contingency of vision. The mountains in the distance appear ephemeral, softened by the layers of atmosphere that veil the viewer’s perception. Objects in the foreground have a much greater degree of clarity, and the sandy and rocky surface of the shore has a particularly material quality due to a thicker and more tangible application of paint. These formal elements suggest a direct perception of the natural world even as the image also conveys an idealized vision; thus the painting plays on both the real and the imagined.

Later in his career Gifford increasingly turned to European subject matter to create romanticized depictions of a world separate from modern technologies and developments. His production of paintings such as Rheinstein—of which he completed two versions, one that he exhibited in 1860 and this one, created in 1872–74—coincided with a period in which the American appetite for views of the Old World increased significantly. Spurred by a craze for travel literature and nostalgia for earlier times, many Gilded Age patrons exhibited a fascination for distinguished monuments and past cultures.5 In Rheinstein, Gifford depicted the imposing German castle on a dramatic promontory from the point of view of the road below, presenting an impression of how the viewer might encounter the site in real life. Thee picturesque quality of the composition, defined by the rocky cliff and shadowed pathway balanced with the open sky and view into the distance over the river, combines with genre elements such as peasant figures to communicate a sense of harmony between civilization and nature much like his earlier White Mountains work.

Gifford first journeyed along the Rhine during his European travels of 1855–57, in which he embarked on a standard grand tour that marked the culmination of his artistic training.6 The son of a wealthy iron foundry owner, Gifford did not have to rely on sales of his artistic production as his primary source of income and could afford the lengthy trip abroad to view the lauded sites of Old World grandeur.7 When back in the United States in the following years, Gifford worked from sketches made during this trip to create finished paintings such as his Rheinstein scenes.8 In the maturity of his career, he increasingly sought to depict foreign subjects in order to counter critiques from some of his contemporaries that his images of American locales had become repetitive and formulaic.9

Rheinstein melds both past and present, as the castle stands not in ruins but in a viable working state. Rheinstein had been restored between 1825 and 1829 by Frederick of Prussia; thus Gifford’s depiction reflects the condition of the structure as he first saw it in 1856, returned to its medieval splendor.10 An iron basket hangs over a parapet, where two figures stand presumably looking out over the river, and a colored flag emerges from the highest point of the castle’s towers. The narrow vertical windows of a small chapel to the left of the main architectural feature are marked by bright spots of paint, representing the glint of light against stained windows. Animated by these details, the castle appears as an operational structure, giving the medieval history of the place a vital and contemporary presence in the viewer’s experience. As a vision of the past in an apparently resplendent present, the image also invites the viewer into a deeper consideration of the phenomena of the visual encounter. The contingent effects of light in the painting are crucial to this dynamic, as the play between illuminated surfaces indicates a specific spatial arrangement and time of day. The light reflected o the windows of the chapel is the same light that bathes the entire fortress in warm tones. The shadows cast on the bottom portion of the promontory suggest a late afternoon sun low in the sky, during the golden hour in which the angle of the sun’s rays produces an evocative glow. The moon in the distance, just above the horizon, is reflected in short, thick strokes on the water, further enhancing the sense of multiple physical surfaces animated by the effects of illumination. The depiction effectively transforms a moment experienced in the material world into a representation that indicates the contingency of vision. The painting presents a complex meditation on how the act of perception operates in real conditions, while at the same time the peasants and medieval castle appeal to a nostalgic, sentimental imagination.

Gifford’s exploration of the nature of vision and his foray into the fruitful material of foreign views continued in Venetian Sails: A Study. In this oil study of 1873, which shows a high degree of finish, boats with vivid sailcloth designs are set against the background of the city’s recognizable architecture. On the left, the church of Santa Maria della Salute, with its distinctive domed construction, glimmers on the horizon, balanced by the Doge’s Palace and the brick campanile on the right. The painting has a strong horizontal emphasis, with the distance between the two main architectural features in the composition exaggerated in order to create a broader space as a background for the boats. The clear light at the horizon suggests that the viewer is closer to the elements at the center, with the edges and periphery of the painting slowly growing hazier toward the distance.

For Americans and others encountering the diverse landscapes of Europe, Venice had a romantic, almost magical quality and seemed a part of the distant past. The city provided a unique architectural landscape, in which the terra firma had been almost entirely covered by human construction and boats traversed the interconnected waterways as the central means of transportation. Gifford was not the only artist who became enthralled by Venice, and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a boom in artistic depictions evidences how the city captured the American imagination.11 For Gifford, as for many other Americans, Venice was an exotic space in which the architecture and monuments evidenced the splendor of a once-great society, separate from the concerns of modern industrialism and urbanization yet tragic in its fall from glory.12

Many of Gifford’s contemporaries praised his images for the spirit of contemplation that they provoked. For them, the placid, luminous pictures encouraged a tranquil emotional response and offered an encounter with the world through the perfected vision of the artist.13 Depictions of nature or past cultures apparently unscathed by the deleterious effects of modern industrial life are paradoxically linked to the rise of tourism and new forms of transportation. As these developments of the late nineteenth century progressed, however, access to rural or distant places made the acquisition of these views more easily available to the artist.

Though the images might evoke the perception of a direct encounter with nature, Gifford disrupted a straightforward connection between painted scenes and the unmediated natural realm by formulating unique light effects and employing formal means that make apparent the act of viewing and its contingency. All three paintings offer commentary on the nature of perception and the transformation of a real site into an idealized vision. Within the context of a society fascinated by visiting and viewing distinct, interesting places—whether domestic or international—Gifford effectively created scenes that drew from his personal experience of travel and provided an imaginative escape for his late nineteenth-century audience.


[1] For an account of Gifford’s work that details his various travels during the course of his life, see Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987). An additional valuable resource for information on Gifford’s trips is the extensive biographical chronology by Claire A. Conway and Alicia Ruggiero Bochi in Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, ed. Kevin J. Avery and Franklin Kelly (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003).

[2] Eric Purchase analyzes railroad development, tourism, and how “the White Mountains became America’s ‘most accessible wilderness’” in Out of Nowhere: Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 45. The first arrival of the St. Lawrence train line into the station at Gorham, New Hampshire, in July 1851 also figures prominently in the account of White Mountains history told by Bryant F. Tolles Jr., in The Grand Resort Hotels of the White Mountains: A Vanishing Architectural Legacy (Boston: Godine, 1998).

[3] Thomas Cole, regarded as the father of the Hudson River school, was one of the first prominent landscape painters to travel to and depict the White Mountains, inspiring many other artists, including Gifford, to make similar treks. For extensive documentation of artists who visited and depicted the White Mountains, see Catherine H. Campbell and Marcia Schmidt Blaine, New Hampshire Scenery: A Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Artists of New Hampshire Mountain Landscapes (Canaan, NH: Phoenix Publishing for the New Hampshire Historical Society, 1985).

[4] For a reproduction of the drawing, see Avery and Kelly, Hudson River School Visions, 112.

[5] Sean Dennis Cashman, America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, 3rd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1993), 168–82. For a more complex analysis of the interest in past cultures (including the medieval) as part of a broader antimodernist impulse in industrial America, see T. J. Jackson Lears’s seminal text No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981).

[6] Heidi Applegate, “A Traveler by Instinct,” in Avery and Kelly, Hudson River School Visions, 53.

[7] Rheinstein and numerous other castles in the Rhine Valley had become popular features for grand tour travelers since the early nineteenth century. Images of the sites were disseminated widely through artistic prints, and travel accounts describing the medieval structures appealed to the romantic imaginations of contemporary Europeans and Americans. Robert R. Taylor, The Castles of the Rhine: Recreating the Middle Ages in Modern Germany (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998), 59–60.

[8] Gifford visited Europe again in 1868–69—also traveling to the Middle East to see sites in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon—to revive his repertoire of foreign subject matter.

[9] Applegate, “A Traveler by Instinct,” 60.

[10] For more on Gifford’s interest in the German past as seen in Rheinstein, see J. Gray Sweeney’s analysis in Joseph D. Ketner et al., A Gallery of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis: Washington University Gallery of Art, 1994), 48.

[11] Margaretta M. Lovell’s texts on American artists in Venice offer useful studies that consider specific examples in relation to broader social and cultural contexts; see Lovell, A Visitable Past: Views of Venice by American Artists, 1860–1915 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), and Venice: The American View, 1860–1920 (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1984).

[12] Lovell, Visitable Past, 1.

[13] On contemporary responses to Gifford’s paintings, see Franklin Kelly’s insightful essay “Nature Distilled: Gifford’s Vision of Landscape,” in Avery and Kelly, Hudson River School Visions, 3–23.

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Image Credit

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Rheinstein, 1872–74. Oil on canvas, 31 3/8 x 27 1/4". Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905. WU 2182.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Early October in the White Mountains, 1860. Oil on canvas, 14 1/8 x 24 1/8". Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905. WU 4064.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Venetian Sails: A Study, 1873. Oil on canvas, 13 x 24". Bequest of Charles Parsons, 1905. WU 2183.