Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823-1880)
Sketch of the Lago di Nemi
Signed and dated "S. R. Gifford/18[57?]" l.r.
Oil on canvas, 13 1/2 x 20 1/2 in. (34.5 x 52.2 cm), framed (in a liner, under glass).
Condition: Surface grime, varnish discoloration and varnish inconsistencies in the sky, very minor craquelure in the sun, a tiny spot of craquelure with lifting in the left edge of the tree at center, a cluster of small paint losses to the right of the tree in the center.
Provenance: Arthur Dennis Veasey (d. 1927), Haverhill, Massachusetts, mill owner, Groveland, Massachusetts; by family descent to the current private collection.
N.B. The following text was written by Dr. Kevin J. Avery, Independent Scholar, co-author, Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford.
This recently surfaced painting is the last and the largest of at least four known or recorded works by Gifford in preparation of his breakout masterpiece, Lake Nemi, in the Toledo Museum of Art. (i) Like three of the four other preparatory oils, the present picture was probably painted in Rome in the fall and winter of 1856-57, probably even as the Toledo painting was in progress. The present work, about one-third the size of the Toledo picture (39 5/8 x 60 3/8 inches), is the ultimate of the four rehearsal images, and may well have served to test effects the artist was incorporating into the magnum opus. Gifford might well have craved the sense of security that experimentation on the smaller work would have afforded him in executing the larger. The Toledo painting was a major commission from Charles Coffey Alger, a partner of Gifford's father in an iron foundry at Hudson, New York. The artist's long absence abroad from home and family, coupled with the rainy, chill winter in Rome confined mostly to his studio, depressed his spirits as he labored haltingly and uncertainly on the big commission. (ii)
Lake Nemi, the small volcanic lake nestled in the Alban Hills seventeen miles southeast of Rome, became one of the most coveted subjects for eighteenth and nineteenth-century Northern European and American artists making the Grand Tour of the Continent culminating in Italy. For Gifford, the British master Joseph M. W. Turner was the foremost model among artists who had essayed Nemi and other Italian volcanic lakes such as nearby Albano, as well as Avernus, near Naples. (iii) On the same tour, beginning in London in 1855, Gifford had marveled at the works of the recently deceased Turner, and then debated their merits in a personal audience with the master's renowned champion, John Ruskin. When, on the evening of 6 October 1856, Gifford reached the town of Nemi in the company of other aspiring American landscape painters (including Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge), he was primed to stare in awe, not merely at the lake, but at the full moon hanging above it and its reflection on the water. (iv) Possibly by the time even of his first oil sketch of the scene (unlocated), painted on site, the hanging moon had become, in Turner fashion, the diffused sun, in a conception that persisted through the four pictures of the site (including the present one) he painted thereafter. The orb reflects not only on the lake, but also beyond, on the Tyrrhenian Sea, about twenty miles to the west. On the middle ground terrain, its light is manifested in the contre-jour effect of the foliage, casting radial shadows near lakeside and on the crest of the crater's rim. To convey further the sun's influence, in all his known paintings of Lake Nemi Gifford included local women, at the foot of the dwellings on the foreground ledge, spreading laundry to dry.
Besides being the largest of the preparatory works, the present painting appears also to be the most highly finished. Yet, in relative refinement of execution and in overall tone, it still differs measurably from the large painting. For what Gifford himself termed his "Chief Pictures" (of which Toledo's Lake Nemi figured first) he typically imparted a smoother surface texture and an even warmer, rosier tone throughout. (v) With all the solar heat embodied in the present picture, it appears greener, more neutral, and more naturalistic than the ultimate work. Still, Gifford's preparatory paintings scarcely repelled potential patrons, and throughout his career critics occasionally expressed a preference for his smaller works.
It is possible that this rediscovered Lake Nemi painting is the sketch that Gifford, writing to his father from Rome in April 1857, disclosed having just made to send home to "Lizzie Mulock," undoubtedly a family friend. (vi) By 1881, a painting titled Lago di Nemi, reportedly conforming almost exactly to the dimensions of the present work, was owned by the railroad and steamship executive LeGrand B. Cannon, a native of Troy, New York, and later a resident of New York City and Burlington, Vermont. Like Gifford, Cannon was a Civil War veteran, a Union League club member, and a founder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (vii)
i) Three of the four are listed in A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N. A. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1881), nos. 99, A Sketch of Lago di Nemi, dated October 7th, 1856, 10 x 14 inches; (unlocated); 101, A Sketch of Lago di Nemi, dated October 23d [sic], 1856 (private collection); and 115, Lago di Nemi, "date not known," size 14 x 20, owned by LeGrand B. Cannon. The last is probably the present painting. The other two extant oil sketches, one of them not listed in the Memorial Catalogue, are illustrated and discussed in Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art (Dallas, Texas, 1998), pp. 204-206.
ii) For Charles Coffey Alger, see The Gossips of Rivertown: News and Commentary about the City of Hudson, New York: https://gossipsofrivertown.blogspot.com/2019/04/nine-not-to-ignore-no-2.html. For Gifford's work on the large Lake Nemi, see Kevin J. Avery and Franklin Kelly, Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art (New York and Washington, 2003), pp. 12, 103-105.
iii) Gifford's efforts to see original Turner paintings in England and his follow-up interview with Ruskin are described in Avery and Kelly 2003, pp. 10-11; 103, 104 (fig. 68).
iv) Harvey 1998, pp. 204-205; Avery and Kelly 2003, p. 103; see also Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and the Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1987), pp. 195-197.
v) Gifford's "List of Some of My Chief Pictures" is included in Weiss 1987, pp. 327-330.
vi) Harvey 1998, p. 206; Avery and Kelly 2003, p. 106n11.
vii) Memorial Catalogue 1881, p. 18, no. 115. For Cannon, see "Colonel Cannon," Middlebury [Vermont] Register, 16 November 1906, p. 4; A Metropolitan Art-Museum in the City of New York. Proceedings of a Meeting Held at the Theatre of the Union League Club, Tuesday evening, November 23, 1869 . . . (New York, [Union League Club, Committee of Fifty], 1869), pp. 19, ; Weiss 1987, pp. 128-129.
Framed dimensions are 19 x 25 3/4 x 1 3/16 inches.
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