Project Description

Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823-1880)
The Roman Campagna, 1858
Oil on canvas
12 x 23 inches
Signed and dated lower left:  S. R. Gifford 1858

Provenance:
Mrs. Laura C. Bullard;
Henry Hill Collins, Jr. (1873-1957);
Katherine Hill Collins (Henry’s daughter)
by descent in the family

Exhibited 
possibly no. 196, Scene on the Roman Campagna (no owner or even offer of sale cited) in the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design.

Literature 
A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N.A. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1881), p. 19, probably no. 123 (“The Roman Campagna.  Size, 12 x 23.  Sold in 1857-8 to Mrs. Laura C. Bullard.”);

Ila S. Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1987), pp. 84, 204-205;

Kevin J. Avery and Franklin Kelly, eds., Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and National Gallery of Art (New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 103-106, 141-142.

Gifford first witnessed the scene represented in The Roman Campagna in October 1856 during the second year of his first trip to Europe (1855-57).  Just days after arriving in Rome he accompanied four other artists on an excursion across the Campagna to the Alban Hills.  The party stopped in Gensano, overlooking Lake Nemi and then ascended (by donkey) Monte Cavo, the mountain rising in the background of the present work.  Since Gifford and company did not pause on their day-long trek into the Alban Hills, he probably did not actually sketch the scene in The Roman Campagna until sometime after his return from his inaugural excursion.   The 1881 Memorial Catalogue of his paintings lists two oil sketches of the Campagna (the presumed earlier of them, only about three by six inches, dated 1856) along with one of his several known sketches and paintings of the Claudian Aqueduct, which include Monte Cavo in the background.  One of those is dated “November 3d, 1856,” which probably approximates the date of the Campagna sketches forecasting the present picture.[i]  The Roman Campagna is Gifford’s largest known—and probably last—version of the subject, and was executed from his 1856 sketches after the artist’s return to America.  It was undoubtedly among the first pictures he painted in the new work and living space he had just procured in the recently completed, already renowned Studio Building at 15 West Tenth Street, where he joined landscape colleagues such as Frederic Church.

Panoramic in format, The Roman Campagna is constructed of several wide horizontals, comprising the dark foreground terrain with figures, the yellowish green plain of the Campagna, the foothills of Monte Cavo, the mountain itself, and the sky, ornamented at right with a few cloud strata.  A thin broken line of pale blue pigment sandwiched between the foothills and Monte Cavo may indicate Lake Albano or the morning mists rising from it.

In depicting the Aqueduct on the Campagna Gifford had followed the lead of the Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole and a host of mostly European artists before and contemporaneous with him.  Yet, as The Roman Campagna shows, Gifford was as captivated by the vacant sweep of the plain surrounding the Eternal City.  As he wrote to his father, it had dazzled him even as he arrived in Rome in late September:

 

The views over the Campagna . . . are magnificent.  The long lines and immense expanse give a grand character to the landscape.  Looking towards Rome, a little to the left of the faint dome [of St. Peter’s Basilica], is the detached range of the Alban hills.  And still farther to the left are the fine lines of the Sabine and Umbrian mountains—jutting spurs of the Appennines [sic].  In the fine atmosphere we had that afternoon these were very beautiful in color. . . . we descended rapidly to the Campagna, [and] crossed sixteen miles over the desolate expanse, on which there are no buildings, except here and there a solitary feudal tower of the Middle Ages, and occasionally the massive ruins of some Roman work—chiefly tombs . . .[ii]

Gifford’s prospect embraces much of what he described, filtered through the colored air that became his signature conceit, but also according with his first charmed description of the plain and its bordering hills.  Arguably, too, his prospect is informed by his ascent of Monte Cavo on 8 October, where he took in another “grand panorama comprising the whole of the Roman Campagna” and saw at the summit not only the “massive foundations of the Temple of Jupiter” still visible there but also “a convent” (actually a monastery, since converted to a hotel, today a telecommunication station) that perpetuated the ancient sacred status of the mountaintop.[iii]  Accordingly, for all the distance from Monte Cavo conveyed in his painting, the artist did not fail to include on its peak the tiny pale cube of his “convent” catching the light of the dawning sun.

With all Gifford’s mastery of atmospheric perspective, his distance would be far less effective without the deep, warm, carefully sculpted terrain and human figures silhouetted before it, to say nothing of the densely tooled, virtually “plastered” forms of the sheep relieved against the modulated yellow-green of the plain.  The word “sculpted” is not invoked casually.  Besides his painstaking modeling in dark and light, Gifford deftly scored with the butt of his brush the wet pigment at lower left to denote sprouting grasses.  At lower right a muted pond or stream supplies a premise for the presence of the flock, which would both graze and water at the location.  But formally, the placement of the sheep reinforces, with the mountain rising directly above them, a central, vertical axis counterbalancing the dominant horizontal sweep of the canvas format and the principal motifs.  Even the arrangement of the two stones at the bottom faintly mirror the rude pyramid of Monte Cavo’s summit.  With the morning light just reaching into the shadowy precinct where one of them reclines, the shepherds seem as if they might have spent the night there with their flock, and are just rising with them to the break of day.   In any case, they are anything but a fanciful or a mere formal insertion of the artist’s:  his friend, the travel writer Bayard Taylor, in 1846 had noted the “miles and miles of uncultivated land, with scarcely a single habitation” marking the Campagna, but for “a few shepherds who watch their flocks in the marshy hollows, look[ing] wild and savage enough for any kind of crime.”[iv]  More than a dozen years later, Gifford’s perception of them seems anything but foreboding.

The present picture may well be the Scene on the Roman Campagna that Gifford exhibited along with his premier masterpiece, Lake Nemi (1856-57; Toledo Museum of Art) and three other Italian subjects–including one of the Claudian Aqueduct—at the spring 1858 exhibition of the National Academy of Design.   Lake Nemi, the largest picture that Gifford would ever paint, naturally garnered special attention from several critics.  Yet it is remarkable that Scene on the Roman Campagna not only attracted favorable notice, but also evidently was preferred by two reviewers to Lake Nemi.  Citing the artist’s “poetic grasp of the scene selected,” his “luminous atmosphere,” “fine sense of the picturesque,” “feeling of repose,” and “unity” in his “subordination of minor truths to important truths,” the critic of the art journal Crayon referred primarily to Scene on the Roman Campagna, hailing its “most beautiful distance.”  Of Lake Nemi and a view of Lake Maggiore (1858; New-York Historical Society), he mentioned only that they were “worthy of study in the particulars indicated.”[v]   The New York Times reviewer allowed that Lake Nemi was the “finest” of Gifford’s submissions.  But, alluding to the great paragon of British landscape art, J. M. W. Turner, the critic discerned that Gifford’s big picture was “’Turneresque’ almost to the point of plagiarism,” and alternately recommended Scene on the Roman Campagna for its “very delicate and more purely original qualities of treatment.”[vi]

Gifford may have had one more immediate stimulus for turning his Campagna-Monte Cavo sketches into an exhibition picture.  Monte Cavo, the second-highest Alban hill (Gifford thought it was the tallest) is an extinct volcano, as are the craters containing Lakes Nemi and Albano.  When the artist arrived at the Studio Building in early 1858, he might well have seen Frederic Church’s Cayambe (1858; New-York Historical Society) on the easel in that painter’s neighboring workspace.  Portraying at center the extinct South American volcano that straddles the equatorial line, Cayambe was being readied for the same spring exhibition of the Academy.  Gifford’s serene prospect of Monte Cavo rising above the arid Campagna and its shepherds at dawn represents an intriguing (and concerted?) contrast to Church’s snow-capped alp overlooking a luxuriant tropical foil at sunset.

The Roman Campagna set the poetic tone of American mountain subjects by Gifford to come, for example, his views of Mount Washington from the Saco River (e.g., 1871; New Britain Museum of American Art), but most especially his large masterpiece of 1860, The Wilderness (Toledo Museum of Art), thought to portray Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Kevin J. Avery
Senior Research Scholar
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
 
Adjunct Professor
Art Department
Hunter College
City University of New York

[i] A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N. A. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1881), p. 18, nos. 103-105.

[ii] Sanford Gifford to his father, Elihu Gifford, Rome, 15 October 1856 [including diary entries of 15 September to 15 October; entry of 29 September quoted] in Sanford Gifford, “European Letters,” transcripts of originals (unlocated) made by Gifford family descendants, transcripts in private collection, copy in Sanford Gifford Papers, the Archives of American Art.

[iii] Ibid. (diary entry of 8 October).

[iv] Bayard Taylor, Views A-Foot, or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (1846; rpt. Ninth Edition, New York: George P. Putnam, 1850), p. 341

[v] “Sketchings. Exhibition of the National Academy of Design,” The Crayon, 5, no. 5 (May 1858), p. 147.

[vi] “The Fine Arts. Exhibition of the National Academy of Design,” New York Times, 8 May 1858, p. 2.

______________________________________________________________________

[1] A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N. A. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1881), p. 18, nos. 103-105.

[1] Sanford Gifford to his father, Elihu Gifford, Rome, 15 October 1856 [including diary entries of 15 September to 15 October; entry of 29 September quoted] in Sanford Gifford, “European Letters,” transcripts of originals (unlocated) made by Gifford family descendants, transcripts in private collection, copy in Sanford Gifford Papers, the Archives of American Art.

[1] Ibid. (diary entry of 8 October).

[1] Bayard Taylor, Views A-Foot, or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (1846; rpt. Ninth Edition, New York: George P. Putnam, 1850), p. 341

[1] “Sketchings. Exhibition of the National Academy of Design,” The Crayon, 5, no. 5 (May 1858), p. 147.

[1] “The Fine Arts. Exhibition of the National Academy of Design,” New York Times, 8 May 1858, p. 2.