Sanford Robinson Gifford
American, b. 1823
The Beach at Coney Island, 1866
Oil on canvas
10 x 20 inches
Signed and dated lower left
Sanford Robinson Gifford was a member of the Hudson River School of painters, a loose association of artists who captured the vanishing American landscape in the midst of rapid urbanization and industrialism. Gifford was the son of an iron foundry owner and was raised in the scenic riverfront town of Hudson, New York. He received early instruction in landscape painting and portraiture from Henry Ary, a former neighbor of Thomas Cole, the pioneering American landscape painter. In 1842, Gifford attended Brown University but academic life did not hold his interest and he left after two years. He then moved to New York City with ambitions to become an artist. Although he first trained as a portrait painter, Gifford was captivated by the landscapes of Cole and Asher B. Durand. Their spiritually-infused paintings depicted expansive, unspoiled views of nature and Gifford joined the small circle of artists who identified with this style. By the late 1840s, Gifford exhibited annually at the National Academy of Design and became a full Academician by 1854.
By the 1850s, Gifford began to develop a signature style, marked by panoramic landscapes that emanated light and atmosphere. Like many artists of his generation, Gifford sharpened his skills on a European tour. From 1855-1857, Gifford traveled to London, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Italy. At London’s National Gallery, he particularly admired J.M.W. Turner’s luminescent style. Gifford’s first major painting after his travels, Lake Nemi, evokes a Turner-esque radiance, a mood he continually illustrated in his works.
Gifford returned to New York with a renewed confidence and reputation. He set up his workspace in the new Studio Building in Greenwich Village alongside his contemporaries Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church, and continued to travel throughout New York and New England seeking inspiration for his prized landscapes. Even during the outbreak of the Civil War, Gifford continued to paint monumental works that recorded the varied terrain of America as he served in the Union Army. His second and last trip abroad in 1868 brought him to Egypt, Turkey, and Greece along with his usual stops in Europe. His ethereal paintings of Venice, Rome, and Middle Eastern exotic locales exemplify some of Gifford’s best and most inspired landscapes.
The present work is the earliest depiction of Coney Island by a known artist and remained in a single private collection, descending in the family for nearly 150 years, from the time it was painted in 1866 until 2014. While the painting may have spent some time hanging in the family home in Waquoit Village, Massachusetts, it was placed on extended loan with the Museum of the City of New York from 1935 until 2014. The museum exhibited the painting twice in recent times as part of group exhibitions, in 2004 and 2011. An old label on the verso of the frame reads: “This picture belongs to Mrs. Homer I. Ostrom of Waquoit, Mass. It is to be returned to her in case a change takes place in this home.” The label is signed by Francis La Flesche [1857-1932], who was the first professional Native American ethnologist and was an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution.
The Beach at Coney Island was included in the exhibition Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, organized by Dr. Robin Jaffee Frank. According to Jaffee Frank:
“Illustrations of the resort were already common in popular magazines, but Coney Island had yet to constitute a subject for fine art. Among the first leading painters to represent it was Sanford Robinson Gifford, who was associated with the Hudson River School, a loosely affiliated group of painters who extolled the landscape in national terms by seeing it as the spiritual embodiment of shared values. Gifford served as a corporal in New York’s 7th Regiment when it marched to the defense of Washington in April 1861 and again in 1862 and 1863. In July of 1863, draft riots pitted the black working class against immigrants in the artist’s beloved New York City. Gifford painted several scenes recording his wartime experiences, as well as turbulent landscapes conveying the emotional trauma of a divided nation. Painted in the conflict’s immediate aftermath, The Beach at Coney Island is tranquil (plate 1). The canvas’s horizontal format emphasizes the opalescent sky that occupies over half the composition and is mirrored in a shimmering pool of water in the lower left. At right, sailboats glide and waves lap against the stretch of sand that forms a pathway into the picture, beckoning viewers to join the numerous individuals, couples, and families streaming toward the hotels, bathing pavilions, and other resort structures, capped by American flags, that dot the horizon. Rendered luminously dream-like by Gifford’s diffuse lighting, The Beach at Coney Island offers respite from the bustling city and the anxieties of troubled times” (Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861- 2008, New Haven, 2015, pp. 12-13).