DescriptionSANFORD ROBINSON GIFFORD (American, 1823-1880)
Venice, circa 1869-80
Oil on canvas
8-1/4 x 15-1/2 inches (21.0 x 39.4 cm)
Mildred H. McKinley, Wheeling, West Virginia;
Estate of the above.
According to Dr. Ila Weiss, in a letter dated June 6, 2014, which accompanies this lot:
"Thank you for requesting for my opinion of the 8 1/4- by 15 1/2-inch oil on canvas painting of colorful sailboats in the Lagoon with the shoreline of Venice in the distance, and for giving me the opportunity of examining the painting in person. This is one of Sanford R. Gifford's numerous paintings in the vicinity of Venice: he did more than the 36 listed in the Gifford Memorial Catalogue [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1881].
"Gifford had spent twelve days in Venice in July 1857, preoccupied with the study of its art and architecture. When he returned in June 1869 he was overwhelmed by the city's possibilities as a subject for his own evolved chromo-luminist imagery. In a sketchbook [inscribed, 'given to Richard Butler by the heirs of S R Gifford Jany 25th 1881,' disassembled by Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York, in 1976 and sold as individual drawings] and a few oil sketches, he studied the compositional elements used for all his subsequent paintings: the skyline of the city seen from the Lagoon; islands on the horizon in the Lagoon, fishing boats with colorful sails in nearby waters, and such landmarks as Santa Maria Della Salute, San Giorgio, and the Campanile of the Piazza San Marco. He later told his friend Prof. John F. Weir that he did not do very much in Venice, 'but what I did do took, for the most part, pictorial shapes, and was therefore effective.' [S. R. Gifford to John F. Weir, May 6, 1875, Yale University.] From Venice he wrote, 'The richly colored sails of the Venetian and Chioggian fishing boats have interested me a good deal from the striking contrasts of color they afford with the sky and water. There is also a curious variety of quaint design in them.' [Letter to his father of July 17, 1869, European Letters 3:130, Archives of American Art.] Apparently for the first time, he acquired colored pencils to record their remarkable designs in his sketchbook. Of the several sails he sketched, two are prominent in the drawings and paintings, including the cross and orb, symbolizing Christian dominion, featured in your painting. The drawing on which your boat grouping is based, with red penciling added to the sails, contains the same backwards '1869' that appears on your painting's prominent sail.
"That sail and the cluster of boats with which it is associated, positioned to the right of center, floating, literally and figuratively, on a luminous field of sky and water, with a recognizable skyline along the horizon, appear in three other of Gifford's known paintings. Another, probably later, version of the concept of your painting was dated 1880 and repainted in black and white for reproduction as an engraving in The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1881-c. 1883), 2:opp. 830), where it is labeled Venice and indexed as 'White Swan of Cities.' As #730 in the Memorial Catalogue it is called 'The White Winged City, a Study in Black and White,' referring to Longfellow's imagery. It is almost the same dimensions as your painting, 8 ½ by 15 ½ inches. It was probably based on a full-colored catalogued version of the same year called Venice, MC 729, also 8 by 15 inches (possibly the painting of that title exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association as #119 in May 1880). However, whereas the Campanile and domes of the Duomo are featured toward the left of your painting's skyline, balancing the boats, in the engraved version the skyline is more informatively extended to the left to include Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal, and the secondary boats are rearranged. As your painting is closest to this series, I recommend giving it the title Venice. . . . It could have been painted anytime between 1869 and 1880.
"Your painting seems to have undecipherable, possibly pentimento pencil inscriptions near the bottom right and center. None seem to represent Gifford's signature as he would have signed a painting on completion; and none seem to be a date. Stylistically the painting is characteristic of Gifford. It is infused with the salmons and yellow tints of low sunlight that he loved, in this case that of early morning. The vibrant colors of sails against glowing colored and reflected light was so acclaimed during the artist's lifetime that by 1875 he was declining commissions, telling Weir, 'One can't stay in Venice forever anymore than one can eat partridge every day.' Impasto painting on the nearer sails and fishermen in boats and their watery reflections are typical of his work. The economical establishment of the figures with tiny dabs of color and highlights exemplify his masterful achievement. Despite the (also typical) sketchiness of handling in distant sails and buildings, Gifford's habit of careful observation is evident in conveying such details as unrigged distant masts, a silhouetted gondola, and silhouetted figures in shade. Also characteristic is the pentimento of the underlying pencil drawing visible on the skyline. I would point out that the unaggressive removal of the surface layer of soot has left places unusually black for Gifford, including the four edges and the darkest areas of the image.
"Another closely related known painting, Lagoons of Venice, 11 by 24 inches, MC 541, in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, Woodstock, VT, is dated 1869, and was probably the first painting to feature the cross and orb sail in its cluster of boats to the right of center. Its distance, however, is the Isola Poveglia, stretched along on the horizon, based on a drawing, even more remote and aerial then the Venice skyline.
"A Venetian Twilight, 9 by 16 inches, (undated, possibly MC 686) in which the more limited expanse of the Venice skyline, similar to yours, is subsumed in dusk, places the same featured cluster of boats closer to the center to allow for a more distant grouping of sails to the right and a gondola to the left, articulating the spatial recession in tension with the luminous field, the boats in semi-shade against the glow of the setting sun. (At Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, 2006.)
"Just before he left Venice, having had a projected few days' stay stretch to six weeks, Gifford wrote in the same letter to his father,
Tomorrow I am to be dragged reluctantly away. It will not be easy for me to go ... I did not know till now, when I am about leaving Venice forever, how strong a hold this dear old, magnificent, dilapidated, poverty-stricken city has taken on my affections. Even in her rags and tatters and old age the 'bride of the sea' is the loveliest, the most glorious and most superb of cities.
"Five National Academy exhibition pieces resulted from the inspiration of Venice, all on Gifford's List of Chief Pictures [See Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (U. of Delaware Press, 1987), Appendix B, 327-330.] Your painting is one of the studies for this important group of Gifford's works."
We wish to thank Dr. Ila Weiss for her expertise and gracious assistance in cataloguing this painting.
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