Robert Swain Gifford

American , 1840 - 1905

Robert Swain Gifford was born in 1840 on Naushon Island, Maine in the chain of Elizabeth Islands off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts. When he was a child, Gifford’s family moved to Fairhaven where he later became friends with New Bedford artist, Albert Van Beest who tutored Gifford, for a time.

Gifford first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1864. He spent some time in New York, returning in the 1850s, to New Bedford where he lived with sculptor, Walton Ricketson. The two artists made trips together to the Adirondack Mountains and to Grand Manan Island where they found inspiration for their work.

Gifford moved to New York City in 1865 and spent the winter months painting in Samuel Coleman’s studio. He returned to New Bedford for the summer to execute sketches for work to be done the following winter in his studio. Gifford supplemented his career by doing book illustrations for three articles in “Picturesque America”, a forty-eight part serial published by D. Appleton & Company in 1872.

In 1870 Gifford traveled with Louis Comfort Tiffany, to Europe and Africa where he found new subjects for his work, particularly in Egypt. He was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1867 and in 1878 he achieved the standing of Academician. In 1876 Gifford was one of the founders of the American Art Association and he was one of the first artists in the country to use the technique of etching as early as 1857. With James D. Smilie, he established the New York Etching Club and became a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers of London. He traveled extensively during the 1860s and 1870s, painting and etching scenes in Oregon, Alaska, Europe and North Africa. He was one of the first American etchers to examine the changes brought on by industrial America.

In 1877 Gifford began teaching in the Cooper Union Schools and in 1896 he was appointed as head of the Women’s Art School. Gifford was a member of the Advisory Committee on Fine Arts of the state of New York for the World’s Columbian Exposition and he was a judge on the awards committee of the St. Louis World’s Fair. In 1903 he became the director of all the art schools of Cooper Union, a position he held until his death at the age of sixty-five.


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