New York

Sanford Gifford

Hirschl and Adler Galleries

One by one the American painters of the 19th century are being given a play. No doubt the pressures of the market are partly responsible for this, but only partly: in every field of art, secondary figures are being studied as those of the first rank seem, from so much acquaintance, to have less to offer. Personally, I think this is an excellent development one learns about 16th-century Roman painting not only from Raphael, but also from Perino and Polidoro, let’s say. I also have come to think that one measure of the quality of an artistic tradition, style, school or approach is its ability to sustain minor talents, enabling them to work at a good level of both competence and interest. By this standard, American landscape painting of the 19th century must be ranked very low, somewhere down in the miasmal precincts of Sicilian Sturm und Drang or Macedonian Rococo. I mean it. Sanford Gifford was not, and was never considered to be, in a class with Cole, Bierstadt, Church or even Kensett, but he was considered to be, and was, just a notch below them: his was certainly not a mean position. And it is really very disturbing that one can be placed so high and yet be so bad, especially as this situation is emerging as a general one: Cropsey and Whittredge, at recent shows, fell just as flat on their faces as Gifford does here. I have written a great deal on American painting of the 19th century, and foreseeably I will continue to, but increasingly I have felt, and now feel I have to say, that the time has come when I (and others much more than I) have to reassess the quality and the fruitfulness of our interests.

So what about Sanford Gifford? A follower of Cole whose work includes a lot of elements that act directly against what Cole was trying to do; especially, the whole divorced from larger currents of ideas and of sensibility that gave the (mediocre, as painting) work of Cole so much of its substance and dimension, and rendered by a personality of no real interest.

I think that, on balance, the most ruinous thing about the Coles by the early Gifford is that they try to be only picturesque. Cole’s picturesque implies a rather ample and complex development (of which, in addition, he was aware and so could exploit) out of history painting and the sublime, and it is this implicit development that gives the greater part of his work—that is, all the paintings which are not part of large cycles—its principal interest (since in his case it would be as idle as in Gifford’s to look for felicities of drawing or the handling of paint). These paintings of Gifford’s are so wholly severed from any connection with the ideals of history painting that at times they are even closer to Hill, Guy or Wall than to Cole, as in the Catskill scene of 1850 or Summer Afternoon. One finished oil painting and two oil sketches are the finest things Gifford was able to do in this vein. The painting owes a great deal to Wilson, inevitably—it was done in Italy in 1857—and the sketches are in the same tradition: those 18th-century adapters of Claude whom Corot, too, grew out of. The Alpine scenes of about the same period also reflect what Gifford was looking at in the way of art, but it is characteristic that in them Gifford’s sources have been purified of the literary and philosophical associations that are integral to nearly all European painters’ views of the Alps. Of the paintings in the present show, such associations come to the fore for the first time in a painting of Windsor Castle to which the catalog tentatively gives a date in the early ’60s—it is Turner, or the Cole of The Departure and The Return. And on occasion Gifford tried, as Cole had, to make the emotional register of his landscape at least approximate that of history painting by the exaggerated drama of a stormy sky. But what Gifford seems principally to have got from Turnervia-Cole is the idea of an intense orange horizon set against a dark and rather purplish foreground; and the result is Gifford-Church (the Church of Twilight in the Wilderness or Beacon off Mt. Desert Island). Actually, it is very odd that Gifford does not resemble Church more often, especially as Church was Cole’s principal follower; but Gifford had rendered his painting unliterary to that extent.

What remains? Gifford’s contemporaries thought that what remained was the rendering of light and the use of light to give coherence to the design, and in seeing this show I began for the first time to think they might have been right. But where this is, in Gifford’s work, an ideated light, it renders ideas that lack an ideology from which to draw substance. Which is to say that it gives only the look of Church and, confined to that, it raises the troubling question of how developed an historical awareness Gifford possessed. It isn’t that the slick surfaces and gravy tones of these paintings put them outside the interests of Gifford’s time—market-wise, they did well—but they do put them outside the interests of the best painters of Gifford’s time: these are retrogressive paintings. But when Gifford is abreast of developments, he only does what others do much better: the view of Hook Mountain is rendered superfluous by so many Kensetts, and Homer’s dry, powdery yellows (in The Bridle Path, for instance) are far beyond what Gifford could manage in his view of Siout. Yet this is one of the best paintings in the show.

Jerrold Lanes