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, i