- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

Visitors first focus on Sanford R. Gifford’s light-filled, smoothly brushed “A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove),” the centerpiece at the National Gallery of Art’s exemplary exhibit “Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford.”

This important retrospective is the first showing of the artist’s paintings in 30 years and the second since the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s memorial exhibition in 1880. Gifford (1823-1880) died of malaria that he probably contracted during a Middle Eastern trip. He was only 57 and extremely handsome, as Launt Thompson’s bust of the artist at the show’s entrance attests.

Viewers can experience artistic effects and techniques similar to Gifford’s by taking a brief walk to see Fitz Hugh Lane’s luminous “Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor” in the museum’s East Building. The painting is the focus of the concurrent “American Masters From Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection.” Visitors will see here an enveloping sunlight glow and poetic atmosphere that would be mirrored in Gifford’s painting.

However, co-curators Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery of Art and Kevin J. Avery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art made the exhibition’s title confusing by calling Gifford a Hudson River School artist. Art historians usually group Gifford with the luminist movement, a later offshoot of the Hudson River School devoted to capturing fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.

Hudson River School painters, who mainly worked near the river and the Catskill and Adirondack mountains nearby, were passionate about the native landscape that they believed stood for America’s future greatness. Influenced by 17th-century European landscapes, they depicted detailed, awe-inspiring vistas.

Visitors can clearly see the differences between the Hudson River School and luminism by comparing Gifford’s quieter approach, with its more subtle colors and compositions, to that of the English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848), initial leader of the Hudson River School. They have only to cross the museum’s East Garden Court to Cole’s 1842 “Voyage of Life,” enormous paintings aimed at chronicling a man’s religious journey through “Childhood,” “Youth,” “Manhood” and “Old Age.”

Cole used the brilliant colors, energetic brushwork and multiple details of romanticism to convey his story. He wanted to move his audiences with what he considered an allegory of the soul. Instead, the cycle is the closest to bombastic kitsch that Cole produced.

Although his paintings may look odd to us, Cole made one very important contribution to 19th-century American art: He introduced the idea that a transcendental spiritual beauty resides in nature, especially in landscape.

The artist made landscape painting popular. He saw the coming effects of the Industrial Revolution and fought them by spreading the idea that God lived in the primordial American landscape and that it should be preserved.

Gifford’s understanding of that vision is reflected in the exhibit’s 72 paintings of his travels in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

The exhibit’s first gallery displays Gifford’s most Cole-like paintings. Such works, which anticipate his later signature style, include “Mansfield Mountain” (1859), a breathtakingly huge landscape panorama in which mountain climbers stop on the foreground rocks to admire the mountains slowly receding below and in the background.

Gifford was raised in a wealthy family in Hudson, N.Y., just across the river from Cole’s home, and he grew up sketching in the Catskills and near the Hudson. He first traveled to Europe in 1855 and stayed 21/2 years to visit museums and paint scenery in Northern Europe and Italy.

“Lake Nemi” (1856-1857), the first of the many works he created in Europe, marks the beginnings of the style identified with him. His paintings done abroad make up about one-quarter of the exhibit. A setting sun provides the focus, while the surrounding earth and buildings are suffused in an atmospheric mist.

For the Hudson River School and the luminists alike, light was the symbol of the divine, although Gifford’s interest was more technical than worshipful. Mr. Kelly and Mr. Avery point out in the catalog that he used thin glazes to evoke subtle transitions from dark to light and create the light he wanted.

In 1868, Gifford traveled to Europe and the Middle East, where he painted “Siout, Egypt” (1874). Yet there isn’t much difference between the artist’s “An Indian Summer’s Day on the Hudson — Tappan Zee,” (1868) with its suffused mists rising from the water, and “Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore” of 1871, with its glowing sunset reflected on the lake and mountains.

If visitors find this show repetitive, they’re right. There’s just so much of the transcendental effects of light on different landscapes that can hold the viewer’s attention. Even so, this excellent exhibition of this neglected art is long overdue.

WHAT: “Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford”

WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 26.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215.

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