Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823 - 1880 ), The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine, 1864-1865, 11 x 19 in., oil on canvas, Gift of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr. in honor of John Wilmerding

One of the most iconic images representing plein air painting, this relatively small painting (above) by Sanford R. Gifford promotes outdoor painting to artists and collectors. The artist put himself on a rock ledge on Mount Desert in Maine and highlighted his supplies, painting procedures, and finished painting. It was as though he was saying that artists should honor the actual appearance of their subjects and that collectors should buy what is true to the visual world.

Gifford was a second-generation Hudson River School painter who built a reputation as a master of light and atmosphere. When he was an infant, Gifford moved with his family to Hudson, New York, where an older brother, Charles, became enamored of art at an early age and may have received some early instruction from Henry Ary, a landscape and portrait painter who had moved to Hudson from Catskill, where he had been a neighbor of Thomas Cole. Gifford attended Brown University for two years in 1842–44, but did not graduate, telling his parents he wished to be an artist.

This article originally appeared in Plein Air magazine (subscribe here!).

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  1. “It was as though he was saying that artists should honor the actual appearance of their subjects”. I have been to the top of Cadillac Mountain multiple times in search of the vantage point depicted in Gifford’s painting to no avail. Perhaps it would be better to say, “It was as though he was saying that artists should honor the spirit of their subjects.
    It can be a curse to get caught up in being to literal when painting. I don’t believe the object of painting is to cut out a piece of a landscape and put it on canvas. That you can do with a camera. As artists we should strive to express the spirit that inspires us to capture that place at that time.

    • Hi Robert. I reread that line twice myself and concluded that I disagreed with it — or at least that it didn’t represent what I try to honor when I paint…..and then I read your comment. Thank you for articulating so well the value of capturing the spirit of place. Hope you are well!

  2. I haven’t received my copy of the mag yet, I hope you’ve mentioned where the Gifford can be seen. It’s usually in gallery 91 on the main floor of the National Gallery of Art’s west building. There are high resolution images of this in the NGA’s on line images. You should do an article on the NGA’s collection of iconic plain air paintings. Nancy Anderson is the senior curator of American and British paintings there. They acquired many that were shown in the ‘In The Light of Italy’ exhibit held in ’96. That exhibit curated by Philip Conisbe and designed by Gilliard Ravenel really ignited interest & the market. I worked on the NGA exhibits staff as a preparator for many years in the permanent collection galleries of the west building.

  3. Robert, I wrote an article about this view for American Artist’s Watercolor Magazine. I was able to show several paintings where Gifford used the same foreground for several places. The distance is always true to life, but he often elaborates and constructs his foregrounds. I never found this spot either. I have a book on Gifford that was printed from a show of his work at the MET. The book demonstrates how he took his sketches and re-designed the foreground elements for the final painting. This painting is really little too!


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