Artists of Lake George: Sanford Robinson Gifford
The Winslow Homer who depicted scenes from the Civil War might have been an altogether different artist from the one who painted the Adirondacks decades later.
Not so Sanford Robinson Gifford, who is known as both an artist of the Civil War and a Hudson River School painter, and sometimes as a Luminist. His work is owned by the Military Museum in Saratoga and can also be seen at The Hyde Collection, which is displaying paintings from the Adirondack Museum’s collection through April 12.
His use of light, which pervades both his Civil War paintings and his landscapes, is not merely a technical facility. It is a visual language, used to express personal, perhaps even private emotions.
Thus not only style, but themes, make Gifford’s paintings all of a piece. The true subject of one of his most dramatic landscapes, “A Coming Storm on Lake George,” an 1863 work last exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004, for example, is the artist’s own grief at the loss of his brother, who was killed in the war in which Gifford also fought.
Gifford, who was born in Saratoga County in 1823 and grew up in Hudson, served with the New York Seventh Regiment National Guard, the so-called “Silk Stocking” regiment composed largely of wealthy New Yorkers.
The regiment was based at the Park Avenue Armory, which displays several of his paintings, some of which were included a 2012-13 Smithsonian exhibit, “The Civil War and American Art.”
Eleanor Jones Harvey, in a catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition, noted, ”Gifford was principally a landscape painter…. His ‘historico-military’ pictures capture the human side of the war. Unconcerned with troop maneuvers or battle strategy … Gifford instead chose to focus on the small but profound moments that shaped his personal military experience.”
According to Courtney Burns, the Saratoga Military Museum’s director, the Seventh Regiment was activated from April to June 1861 and for another 90 days in 1862. In early July 1863 the regiment was sent to South Mountain in Maryland in attempt to cut off retreating Confederates following the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Later that month they were called back to New York City for the Draft Riots,” Burns said.
After his discharge, Gifford settled in New York, where he worked and made excursions with other artists who painted Lake George and the Adirondacks.
In 1864, for example, he completed “A Twilight in the Adirondacks,” one of the paintings on view at The Hyde.
Gifford first visited Lake George in 1847. At that time, Lake George could still serve as an example of the wilderness that, for the first generation of Hudson River School painters, exemplified beauty, subliminity and the picturesque.
Lake George had been a lure for tourists since the 1820s, but it was not until after the Civil War and the completion of the Fort William Henry Hotel was built that it became an international destination.
Gifford’s 1863 “A Coming Storm on Lake George” reflects a vision of Lake George as unspoiled wilderness. There are no signs of human habitation; lands are forested to the shoreline; the mountains stretch away into an apparently vast, unexplored territory.
(A version of this painting was included in The Hyde’s 2005 exhibition, “Painting Lake George.”)
After the Civil War, American painting lost the confidence it had once possessed to express national, unifying values. More often than not, paintings of Lake George portrayed it as the vacation spot it had become rather than a reflection of divine harmony.
Gifford’s 1877 “A Sudden Storm, Lake George” might be said to belong that genre. The landscape is now populated; two Whitehall skiffs, rowed by guides bearing passengers, strain to escape a storm that has eclipsed half the sky.
John Ferguson Weir, a fellow artist, wrote after Gifford’s death in 1880, “Gifford’s art was poetic and reminiscent. It was not realistic in the formal sense. It was nature passed through the alembic of sensibility.”
Lake George would not be painted in such personal terms until John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe visited the lake in the 20th century.
(Paul Post contributed reporting to this story.)