Sunday, October 2, 2022

From Romantic to Tonalist, New Englander Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905)

For the last 2 weeks, when we venture out onto our local interstate, I-83, we have noticed that there is much more traffic heading north than south. It has been unbearably hot here in the Mid-Atlantic, & our escapist guess is that most of these folks on on their way to visit the cooler, breezier New England Atlantic coast. One of the most famous 19th century painters of that area eventually became a Tonalist painter.

Port Clarence, Alaska Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) 1899

Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) was one of America's prominent landscape & marine painters in the late 19th century. He received his first instruction in drawing during the late 1850s from Albert van Beest & William Bradford at New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) A Coastal View 1862

Gifford's early paintings, which featured dramatic seascapes with storm-tossed boats, reflected his natural respect for this subject as well as his lessons with the Dutch painter van Beest.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Barry Glacier in Alaska

Later, Walton Richetson, a New Bedford sculptor, shared his studio with Gifford.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Cliff Scene Grand Manan 1865
Much of his work focuses on the landscapes of New England, where he was born. He, along with Victorian contemporaries from the White Mountain & Hudson River Schools, helped immortalize the majestic cliffs of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Beach and Cliffs at Nonquitt

In 1864, Gifford opened a studio in Boston; but in 1866, he settled in New York City.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Near the Coast 1885

One year later, he was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design & was made a full academician in 1878.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Seconnet Rock, New Bedford, Massachusettes 1865

In 1869, he sketched in Washington, Oregon, & California, & in 1870 made an extensive trip abroad, visiting England, France, Spain, Italy, Morocco, & Egypt. Four years later, he made a similar journey that included Corsica, Algeria, & parts of North Africa seldom visited by tourists. About 10 years later, he returned for a 3rd visit to the Middle East.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) The Coast of New England 1880

After this, Gifford divided his time between his New York studio & his summer home at Nonquitt, Massachusetts, with the exception of a 3 month voyage to Alaska in 1899. He was one of the early artists into Alaska, going there as a commissioned landscape painter for the Harriman Expediditon, which traveled up the coast of Alaska as far as Plover Bay in Siberia.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) The Hen and Chickens Lightship off Westport, Massachusetts, 1889

Beginning in 1877 & for nearly thirty years thereafter, he taught art classes at the Cooper Union School in New York.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Trees and Meadow 1885

One of the earliest Americans to take up the technique of etching, Gifford helped to establish the New York Etching Club in 1877.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) Water Possibly Niagara NY

During his 2nd trip abroad in 1874, Gifford visited the museum in Marseille, whose "fine collection of modern French paintings" may have reinforced his admiration for the Barbizon artists, which he had first seen in Boston several years before.

Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905) On the Coast
Within a few years after his return, Gifford's style was largely purged of his previously overblown romanticism. Tonalism, characterized by stark, simpler compositions, wide spacious vistas, &, most typically, a cold, somber mood drawn from the barren dunes & rugged cedars of the coast, replaced his earlier style. Personally, I am more attracted to his early paintings..