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May 6 Art Minute: Sanford Gifford, Lake Nemi

The sun is setting over mountains and a lake. In the foreground is a cliff with a large stone building.
Sanford Gifford (American, 1823-1880), Lake Nemi. Oil on canvas, 1856-57. 39 5/8 x 60 3/8 in. Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott, 1957.46. Gallery 29B

Better known for his luminous American landscapes, Sanford Gifford also painted a number of views of Europe and the Middle East. Many American artists traveled in Europe in order to study the works of the great masters of the past, few examples of which were available in America in the mid-1800s.

Gifford visited Lake Nemi near Rome in October of 1856. His description of the location in a letter corresponds exactly to the view he painted: “We were high up above the lake. On one side in the foreground were some picturesque houses and ruined walls—a tall dark cypress, rising out of a rich mass of foliage, cut strongly against the lake, distance, and sky.” Capturing the scene at sunset, Gifford masterfully recorded the subtle effects of atmosphere and light that would become his trademark.