Known for realistic, refined depictions of 19th-century American landscapes, Sanford Gifford used light as a technique to convey emotions in a way that made him one of the country's leading luminists. His mature style was a balancing of exacting detail of forms with a sense of atmosphere that often sacrificed topographic details. He finished his canvases by using multiple layers of translucent varnish.
Early in his career, Sanford Gifford was a portraitist, but in the summer of 1846, a trip to the Berkshire Hills and Catskill Mountains combined with his admiration for the painting of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole inspired him to return to the freedom of landscape work. Gifford, like many of his peers, understood the spiritual inspiration viewers found in the dramatic vistas of landscape, but he was not as committed to these theories as many of them. However, most of his paintings have luminous qualities with brilliant light contrasted against strong shadows.
He was born in Greenfield, New York and was raised in Hudson, New York, the son of a wealthy industrialist. He attended Brown University for two years but left to devote himself to a career in art and went to New York City to study figure painting with watercolorist John Rubens Smith. He stayed in New York until 1855.
During the summers of 1846, Sanford Gifford went on many walking tours through the Catskill and Berkshire Mountains, and completed many paintings from his sketches. These ventures combined with his great admiration for Thomas Cole led him to devote himself to landscape painting, but he avoided the prevalent heroic and religious subjects, imported from Europe. From his sketching in New Hampshire and Maine, he sometimes included Indians in canoes and teepees.
In 1855, he traveled in Europe and was exposed to the French Barbizon painters and was influenced in England by Joseph Turner's use of color, which encouraged Sanford Gifford to experiment with a wide range of colors. However, he regarded the Barbizon painters as sloppy and thought that Turner overdid the effects of dissolving light. In Italy, he traveled with American landscapist Albert Bierstadt.
In 1861, he enlisted in the Seventh Regiment of the New York State National Guard after the attack on South Carolina's Fort Sumter in April of that year. During his service, he did many paintings expressing a yearning for a quiet, peaceful place and then after the war, was a part of the U.S. Geological Survey with Hayden to southern Wyoming. Sanford Gifford then returned to Europe until 1879. In 1880, the year of his death, he went to the Colorado Rockies with Worthington Whittredge and John Kensett.
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