Brock & Co.

R. Swain Gifford (1840 - 1905)
Nonquit Marshes, 1877
Oil on panel
10 x 18 inches
Signed and dated at lower left: R. Swain Gifford / 1877-8
Titled on handwritten label on reverse: Nonquit Marshes
19th-century frame
Private collection, California, until 2004
National Academy of Design, New York, 1878, 53rd Annual Exhibition, no. 443
Century Association, New York, 1905, Memorial Exhibition of Works by the Late R. Swain Gifford, N.A., no. 59
A highly esteemed landscape painter, instructor, and active member of the National Academy of Design and Society of American Artists, Gifford maintained lifelong ties to the southern Massachusetts coast, where he grew up. He produced compositions infused with feeling, which capture a sense of mood rather than the specific topographic features of a given location. Although the present work depicts a scene near the artist’s summer home, it perhaps more poignantly expresses his personal view of the place, in which he found deep fulfillment. As the artist Francis Millet remarked shortly after Gifford’s death:

[Gifford’s] success, which was great as a landscape painter, an etcher and an illustrator, was both an artistic and popular success. He was a serious painter and a sympathetic observer. He never juggled with his art, never lost his enthusiasm nor his courage to search for the truths which appealed to his artistic sense…He saw and recorded the landscape in its fullest and warmest aspects; he was enchanted by the glow of color on grass, in rocks, in foliage and in water; he saw new glories in sunset skies and found new charms in the sweeping lines of the beach and in the character of stunted, wind-beaten trees….The turbulent and wild effects of sky and sea did not often tempt his brush. His pictures brought no disturbing thoughts to the spectator; they induced, rather, a sense of peace and contentment. [“Prefatory Note,” in Illustrated Catalogue of Oil Paintings and Water Colors by the Late R. Swain Gifford, N.A. (1906), n.p.]

Gifford was born on Nonamesset Island, a small land mass in the sparsely populated Elizabeth Islands, near Martha’s Vineyard. At the age of two, his family moved to the New Bedford area. Although he resided in New York as an adult, taught at Cooper Union, and traveled extensively, he returned each year to the Buzzard’s Bay area after he purchased a summer house in the hamlet of Nonquitt. Over the years, he captured the nearby scenery in a variety of moods, as evidenced in Nonquitt Marshes.

Mr. Gifford puts himself in his pictures. His landscapes are something more than mere scenes in Nature. They are Nature, to be sure, but Nature as he views her, and Nature with a revelation of his own feelings towards her. The impress of man is left upon the work, and the work is the measure of the man. He has something fresh to tell us about what we already know a good deal, and, in addition, he explains to us how this something has gone straight to his heart, and has stirred his emotions. In the last analysis the worth of an artist’s performance depends upon the worth of the artist himself; his character as well as his genius is displayed and defined in his works. An ordinary landscape, seen though his eyes, becomes full of mystery and of meaning….Mr. Gifford will paint a barren moor under a leaden sky so that it shall almost palpitate with emotion. [G.V. Sheldon, American Painters (1879), pp. 94-95]