Bold Power Hiding in Subtle Colors

There's a slippery quality to color. It's like trying to pick up a buttery noodle off the floor- sometimes you get it, other times it just won't give you any traction at all. Fortunately some very gifted people have wrestled with just such problems and by their example, we can grab and hold on.

Above is an oil by Sanford Gifford, The Wilderness, now in the Toledo, Ohio Museum of Art. It was painted right before the U.S. Civil War. Gifford's basic idea is to conceive of the world as suffused in a soft orange-yellow light. He undoubtedly painted this oil over a warm sienna-colored ground. Most of the painting's surface glows with that warmth as he purposefully allowed it to show through the subsequent pigment layers. In a few places he puts in some relatively cooler colors- mostly a neutral grey. Swimming in the field of warm colors, the greys are the exception. They know their place is to play a supporting role to the dramatic leading role assigned to the warm colors.

Below is a second Sanford Gifford oil, this one of the Hudson River (that kindly lent its name to the movement of artists Gifford was a part of).

In this second painting, Gifford reverses his thinking, imagining the world is a mostly cool, bluish place. Almost everything seems to have some blue in it, with a few pinkish clouds emerging out of the bed of coolness that is the sky. A warm-hulled boat does the same in the foreground.

What's key in both these paintings is Gifford's decisiveness, choosing to let one color dominate his picture. Had this been executed in a heavy handed way, the paintings could have had a harsh and mechanical quality. Instead Gifford is an absolute master of gradating the color's temperatures and intensity. You look a long time at a Gifford painting before you find an area that isn't carefully gradated. He knew this would give his skies and water a certain gentle pulsing energy. And he has a terrific eye for creating mist-laden atmosphere.

And here's a final Gifford, Kauterskill Falls, now in the Detroit Institute of Art. He returns to the idea of covering the whole surface with a warm gold ground as a foundation. Then as if he took a mat knife in hand, he cuts out a "keyhole" in the center of the forest. This intriguingly carved opening reveals a far distance that seems borrowed from our second painting, the cooler blue Hudson River scene. He keeps the blue far distance way toned down. Against all the sienna and yellow in the foreground it seems cool enough as it is. You can see into the artist's imagination through this painting. He's saying "I'll make a  warm world with just a bit of cool color that will be the exception." Gifford was about subtlety. But in his hands that's a far cry from indecisiveness or timidity.


  1. Ahhh, Gifford. My absolute favorite HRS painter. He holds a special place in my own artistic heritage. I saw 70 of his works in the Hudson River School Visions show (twice)and marveled at the scumbles and glazes and subtle gradations and temperature changes. It was an amazing, emotional experience to see so much of his work in one place. Luckily, I never fully recovered!

  2. Deborah, I'm delighted at your failure to recover.

    I too had the good fortune to see that huge traveling exhibition of Gifford when it swung by the National Gallery of Art in DC. Like you I just had to go back a second time. I have the big catalogue from the show, but sadly the color reproductions are all off target. That happens sometimes.

  3. This is wonderful information and explains the luminosity I see when I look at the Hudson River School painters, especially Gifford. I spent time at the Wadsworth in Hartford, Ct. to see a smaill representation of them. It seems Wadsworth employed many of them to come here to the White Mountains and record the area through their paintings. I purchased a book called "Hudson River School-Masterworks from the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art" It is quite a collection of many of the painters and you might enjoy this book as much as I have, there are 4 Giffords represented. Thank you for sharing this and the nice comment on my devoted cat.

  4. Hi Nancy,

    Gosh I haven't visited the Wadsworth Atheneum in years, thought as you point out it has a great number of wonderful Hudson River School paintings. Your comment may inspire me to swing by that way on my next painting trip up to New England. Haven't seen the particular book you mention, but I imagine it's pretty strong.

    Best regards to you cat. There's something about an older cat that makes you realize that on some level they know just about all that's worth knowing. Even a cursory glance at the photo of your cat indicates that's the case with him (or is it her). Anytime you want to post more cat photos, I'll be sure to look at them happily.

  5. Gifford is also one of my fav HRS painters. I've always been drawn to the lavender haze in many of his paintings.

    Being from CT I'm proud to say that The Wadsworth Atheneum has the largest collection of HRS paintings in the world, and after renovations they have moved a large part of the collection back into the large first floor galleries. Worth a trip to see them!

  6. Oh also wanted to say that I'm putting a link to this blog over on my own blog !

  7. I missed the big Gifford show, but I do get to visit one special Gifford often. Housed in a local museum, its an luminous, golden view of one of the water falls in the third painting you show.
    His colors are so subtle yet possess such clarity. It's nice to bump into another Gifford fan.

  8. Shirley- likewise, great to meet another Gifford lover. He's really one of the great painters in my book.


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