Gifford, best known for his luminous landscapes, painted Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri during his first trip to Europe in 1855–57. After traveling and sketching in the British Isles, the Low Countries, and Switzerland, Gifford joined the community of American expatriate artists...
Gifford, best known for his luminous landscapes, painted Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri during his first trip to Europe in 1855–57. After traveling and sketching in the British Isles, the Low Countries, and Switzerland, Gifford joined the community of American expatriate artists working in Rome during the winter of 1856–57. In the spring, he and fellow painter Albert Bierstadt [47.1264] set out for a six-week tour of Naples, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast. While exploring Naples and its surroundings, the artists climbed Mount Vesuvius at night, an experience which greatly impressed them. Gifford, who would later include the volcano in Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri, wrote to his father about his ascent on June 25, 1857: “We had a magnificent sunrise over the Appennines . . . From [the peak] is a grand panorama . . . Capri (20 miles distant) gleamed like a jewel on the blue sea as the horizontal rays lighted its bright cliffs.” On May 30, Gifford and Bierstadt took a boat from Naples to Capri, remaining there until June 26. Gifford described the island to his father: “The shores are very precipitous. There are only two places to land—the Marina Grande on the Naples side, and the Piccola Marina on the other.” Gifford and Bierstadt sketched at Marina Piccola for the first fifteen days, and “since the 15th we have been at the Marina Grande sketching boats, figures etc. We spend the day on the shore. Our lunch is brought down to us every day on the head of a brown girl, who has bright eyes and a chubby face. She has a most killing way of saying ‘addio’ when she goes away. We take a bath in the bright sea every day.” According to the inscription in the lower left corner of the picture, Gifford painted Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri on June 20. He included colorfully capped local fishermen drying their sails on their boats and depicted Mount Vesuvius belching smoke in the background. In his well-ordered composition, Gifford devoted almost equal attention to the figures as to the volcano he had recently climbed. He arranged the foreground elements so that they dip in the middle, echoing in reverse the form of Mount Vesuvius. Although the painting has an overall blond tonality, Gifford punctuated the scene with notes of red on the fishermen’s caps and the tops of the poles. The draped sails are of varying shades of ochre and rust, with the most vibrant orange sail centered on the beach under the volcano. Like many of his oil sketches, Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri was found in Gifford’s studio when he died. He had not intended it to be sold or exhibited, but he may have thought to use it as preparation for a larger, more finished picture, as was his habit. Art critic George Sheldon described Gifford’s working method in 1877, noting that the artist would first make a pencil sketch and then move onto oil sketches, which served “the purpose of defining to him just what he wants to do” as well as helping him “to decide what he does not want to do.”  Finally, Gifford would work on a finished oil painting, what he called the “Chief Picture.” Based on his known surviving works, it seems Gifford never chose to paint a “Chief Picture” from Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri. However, later in the nineteenth century, such sketches became appreciated as independent works of art. In 1882, Sheldon wrote,“Good sketches and studies are perfect in themselves, however slight and fragmentary. They have unity of sentiment, singleness of purpose, homogeneity of expression; whether made within-doors or out-of-doors, they are the spontaneous, honest outcome of communion with Nature; and, finally, their force is concentrated, economized, and well directed.” Sheldon may have described oil sketches as spontaneous, but Gifford’s was the product of much revision. Gifford changed the composition of Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri several times while sketching; an infrared image of the picture reveals more than one underdrawing. Apparently, Gifford began outlining the mountains in pencil on his paper. He was dissatisfied with the sketch, turned the page upside down, and drew more contours of mountains, finally settling on the present composition. He then started painting with oils over the pencil sketch. While working in oil, he made another change, painting out a figure in a small boat in the water to the left. When the study was finished, the paper was attached to canvas, probably in the artist’s lifetime. Gifford painted one other oil sketch of Marina Grande on a small panel (4 ½ x 4 ½ in.; private collection). Taken from the same vantage point as Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri, the sketch includes one boat and several fishermen with a view of Vesuvius in the background. Gifford probably executed both of these oil sketches on the spot or shortly afterwards. He completed a larger oil painting depicting the island, La Marina Grande, Capri (Lorenzo State Historic Site, Cazenovia, New York) in 1861, some years after his trip, which he entered in the National Academy of Design annual exhibition in New York. This picture shows a distant view of the Marina Grande as a crescent beach, with towering cliffs behind it and the island of Ischia in the distance, all suffused with glowing light. Clearly, since the vantage point is entirely different, the two oil sketches were not preparatory to this particular painting. Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri was sold at Gifford’s estate sale in 1881. The former, incorrect title, Marina Grande near Sorrento, may have been assigned at this time. When Gifford died, Jervis McEntee, John F. Weir, and Richard Hubbard went through his studio choosing sketches to be framed and shown in his memorial exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They assigned titles as needed, and mistakenly thought that Gifford had executed the MFA painting on the Marina Grande (large seafront) in Sorrento rather than the Marina Grande on Capri. The painting later came into the collection of Donald Alexander Smith, First Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal (1820–1914), a Scottish-born Canadian fur trader, financier, railroad baron, and statesman. After Lord Strathcona’s death, his family gave Mount Vesuvius from Marina Grande, Capri to the Art Association of Montreal (later the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) in 1927. When the painting was deaccessioned by the Montreal Museum in the mid-1950s, Boston collector Maxim Karolik, who appreciated fresh, lively oil sketches, bought it and bequeathed it to the MFA in 1964. Notes 1. Sanford R. Gifford, “European Letters,”March 10, 1856–August 10, 1857, typescript, vol. 2, p. 158, Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. 2. Gifford, “European Letters,” vol. 2, p. 160. 3. George W. Sheldon, “How One Landscape-Painter Paints,”Art Journal (New York) 3 (September 1877): 284. 4. George W. Sheldon, Hours with Art and Artists (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1882), 128. 5. Observed by Sandra Kelberlau, Cunningham Assistant Conservator of Paintings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Janet L. Comey
Lower left: Marina Grande June 20th 1857 SRG
1857, the artist (1823-1880); 1880, estate of the artist, New York; April 11-12, 1881, S. R. Gifford Collection Sale, Chickering Hall, New York, lot 60 to George Peabody for $135. Sir Donald Alexander Smith, Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal (1820-1914), Montreal, Quebec; 1927, given by Lord Strathcona's heirs to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; 1954, sold by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York; 1954, sold by Hirschl and Adler Galleries to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1964, bequest of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: April 8, 1964)
Bequest of Maxim Karolik