Gifford and the Luminist Style

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Sanford Robinson Gifford created A Study of Morning on Haverstraw Bay, Hudson River in 1866 (figure 1). It is a Luminist oil on canvas at the Colby College Museum of Art. The work consists of a small rowboat in the foreground with a series of mountains surrounding a bay extending to the background. On the bay there are multiple ships and what appears to be a harbor just in front of the mountains. A Study of Morning on Haverstraw Bay, Hudson River belongs to the discourse on American Luminist landscape painting, which was concerned with creating a peaceful and serene atmosphere, expressing the beauty of nature, and immersing the viewer in the artwork. The painting accomplishes these goals through its use of color, spatial organization, expressive content, and its particular emphasis on light.

A harmonious combination of color contributes to the creation of a calm and tranquil atmosphere. The colors have high value and are thus luminous, creating a pleasant and soft image. Also, the general use of mostly light blues, light grays, and some green and dark gray for the land and mountains create a serene atmosphere. As explained by Gillian Rose in Visual Methodologies, bluish colors can be used to suggest distance in a technique called “atmospheric perspective” (Rose, 60). The painting uses this technique to further emphasize the vastness of the image presented. Further, Gifford’s use of low saturation and soft colors furthers the idea of a peaceful atmosphere by not allowing any intensity or apparent conflict within the image. Lastly, the combinations of these aspects in figure 1 come together harmoniously. The use of color and harmony in this aspect adheres to the Luminist style described in the edited volume American Light (Wilmerding). In a chapter “On Defining Luminism” by Barbara Novak, she expresses that through its color selection Luminism strives to expresses the beauty of a natural scene as accurately as possible (Novak in Wilmerding, 24).

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The use of color to portray accurately natural beauty is also evident when observing other Luminist works. In Fitz Hugh Lane’s Gloucester Harbor (figure 2), for example, the use of blue throughout suggests atmospheric perspective that contributes to the general atmosphere of the scene, similar to that created by Gifford. Lane also uses a large amount of yellow and blue as semi complimentary colors to create harmony between the colors and also uses the blue colors to create atmospheric perspective (Figure 2). In Gifford’s own work, Hunter Mountain, Twilight (figure 3), the use of split complementary colors (blue to red-orange and yellow-orange) creates harmony between the colors; at the same time the painting appears to depict the colors of twilight.

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The spatial organization of A Study of Morning on Haverstraw Bay, Hudson River serves to create an atmosphere by setting the position of the viewer and establishing perspective. Gifford places the viewer at a point where he or she is overlooking the scene almost from the center or far side of the bay. The placement of the small rowboat and majority of the bay area in the center foreground creates an initial frame of reference for the viewer. At the same time the extension of the bay to the background makes it appear expansive, as if the image extends beyond the sides of the painting.  The placement of the mountains partially in an area of the foreground and extending them fully into the background makes the landscapes appear to extend outside the bounds of the painting as well. In Poetic Landscapes Ila Weiss discusses how the use of the boats and sails serves to balance the general layout of the work and draw attention to the entire scene depicted (Weiss, 263). The extension of the major aspects of the painting outside of its frame and the balance of the scene in general allow the viewer to imagine he or she is observing from a point within the landscape. As expressed in Visual Methodologies, placing a viewer at a frontal angle and a point more oriented at the ground level of an image further immerses the viewer in the subject matter of the work (Rose, 66).

The light and its source further create a peaceful and appealing scene and emphasize the work’s adherence to Luminist discourse. The light in an image is essential to forming a mood and atmosphere (Rose, 74). The light here is bright but at the same time is not harsh in any aspect. Instead the brightness creates an enticing scene. Further, this light has a warming effect which further contributes to the mood by comforting and enticing the viewer in line with the idea of the appealing warmth of a summer morning. The light appears to originate from the upper left corner of the painting; the title tells us it is from a rising sun, which contributes to the sense that the light provides a tranquil environment. The way in which the light fully illuminates the scene and produces reflections on the still water contributes to the immersion of the viewer in the image and the harmonious and calm mood. Novak discusses the general use of light in this manner throughout Luminism in her chapter “Defining Luminism” in American Light. She explains that Luminist light tends to be cool and have a definite, almost planar and solid quality to it. The light also gleams and radiates in a different manner so it appears as if the painting is not paint from a distance (Novak in Wilmerding, 25). Similarly, in Hunter Mountain, Twilight, light is used to illuminate the valley and establish an atmosphere. Here the way the sunset casts light over the clearing contributes greatly to the beauty and tranquility of the scene; the light fully illuminates the scene with the last sunlight of the day and also represents the general stillness and calm associated with the twilight hour.

The light, spatial organization, and color of Gifford’s painting come together to describe its expressive content. The combination of the artist’s use of soft, low-saturated, and harmonious colors creates a peaceful feeling within the image. The spatial organization of the image make the viewer feel as if the image continues outside the borders of the canvas and immerses him or her further within the image. The lighting serves to create a “warm” feeling and a peaceful setting, just as the light of a summer day appeals and makes a scene appear serene. The combination of these aspects serves to cement the expressive content of the image as peaceful and serene as well as welcoming and warm. In the creation of this atmosphere the work accomplishes the goals of Luminism, immersing the viewer in the image and creating in him or her a desire to be a part of the location represented.

–John Leahy

Works cited

Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies. 3rd ed. London: Sage Publications, 2012.

Weiss, Ila. Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford. Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1987.

Wilmerding, John, et al. American Light The Luminist Movement 1850-1875. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1980.


Figure 1. Sanford Robinson Gifford, Study of Morning on Haverstraw Bay, Hudson River, 1866, oil on canvas, 9 x 19 in., Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Figure 2. Fitz Hugh Lane, Gloucester Harbor, 1856, oil on canvas, 22 3/8 x 36 1/6 in., Terra Foundation for American Art.

Figure 3. Sanford Robinson Gifford, Hunter Mountain, Twilight, 1866, oil on canvas, 30 5/8 x 54 1/8 in., Terra Foundation for American Art.


  1. Thank you for the comment Pedro, I appreciate that you like my choices of my initial image and visual comparisons. In response to your discussion of focal points, my main idea in that was that the boat in the center of the image is central/focal point of the image and the rest of the image sprawls out around it ie the things in the background like the mountain ranges. If you would like to read more about the discussion of how this is handled in Gifford’s work check out the book Poetic Landscapes by Ila Weiss.

  2. Thank you for the comment Ellie. In response to your question about the intent of the Luminist artists’ purpose in displaying the beauty of nature, in my research I generally found that they sought to accurately recreate scenes they observed and genuinely had a large appreciation of nature. They also sought to display the variety of natural landscapes throughout America. They were also greatly influenced by the Transcendentalist writers such as Emerson and believed that nature was the ultimate expression of beauty. The Luminist style originated as an offshoot of the large artistic style of the landscape painters of the Hudson River School in the mid to late 18th century, it was a general trend that was observed in painters that emphasized the use of light to create a mood/atmosphere. Further a good article to check out about Luminism would be this one: from Grove Art Online within Oxford Art Online Encyclopedia. Also, the books mentioned in my bibliography would be good to check out if you would like to read more about the Luminist style.

  3. Your paintings overall were the most beautiful I’ve seen. I can understand why you were drawn to such naturally beautiful portraits. The discussion of light in contention to creating that ephimeral and calming feel is quite interesting. The claim that boats create a general focal point to make the painting expanisve is also very interesting. I would have liked you talk more about this idea that certain images are focal point to create this effect such as a mountain range, sunset, etc.

  4. elirish says:

    Gifford and the Luminist style were unknown to me before reading this discourse analysis, and I am very intrigued about why they wanted to paint in such a style that expressed the beauty of nature? Were the painters environmental activists or did they just really appreciate nature? I like your discussion of how the audience is integrated into the works of art: how the spatial organization of the works sets the viewer to overlook the natural vista. Something I would also like to know is how did the Luminist style come about, where did it originate (in America) or who “created” it? The visual comparisons for this discourse were interesting to look at, especially because Lane’s work and Gifford’s other work use more bold colors, like the yellows and oranges, which really articulate the light sources in the works and advance the luminist style. Yet these three paintings belong in the same genre and contribute to the same notion of nature being glorified with man present in each painting.

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