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Galleries of the Stelvio- -Lake Como

On view

Galleries of the Stelvio- -Lake Como

Artist: Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823 - 1880)

Date: 1878
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original 1870s-style frame
Framed: 47 x 40 3/4 x 4in. (119.4 x 103.5cm)
Overall: 30 1/2 x 24 1/2in. (77.5 x 62.2cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'S.R.Gifford 1878' Verso: 'The Galleries of the Stelvio, Lake Como SR Gifford'
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 48
Label Text
Captured in Sanford Robinson Gifford's Galleries of the Stevio- -Lake Como is a moment of pure aesthetic beauty and ease. Traveling abroad in the mid-1800s Gifford was inspired by the sensuous Italian landscape. The artist's use of pastel blues and pinks capture the hazy quality of a warm summer afternoon, while the contrast of light and shadow draws attention to the natural curve of the rock cliff utilized and altered by man's hand. There is a luxuriant motion to the tunnel road accentuated all the more by the curve in the wall on which a couple rests observing the boats below and the still lake. Gifford uses an effective illusionary device by placing the viewer just inside the cool tunnel that frames the picturesque view.

Sandra Vázquez
Diversity Intern, 1997

Text Entries

Gifford completed Galleries of the Stelvio—Lake Como in the spring of 1878.(1) On June 22 the New York Daily Tribune remarked that its “tone of color . . . would not be recognized as his by those who are not familiar with the range of his work.” It also identified the view as “on the side where the Austrian military road has been built along the front of the cliffs which face the lake there.” Most likely, the coloristic quality that seemed new or atypical was the strong contrast of bright, warm tans and dark, gray-browns of the receding road, rock, and tunnels that fills about two-thirds of the format. The pink and blue opalescence of distant mountains and their reflection in the lake, glimpsed at the right, and the warm, hazy sky imperceptibly cooling toward azure at the top edge are more typical of Gifford’s aerial-luminism.

The concept was actually almost ten years old, and its evolution illustrates the direction taken by Gifford’s art during this period. The artist had first encountered the tunnels in 1857 near the Stelvio Pass and merely noted their utilitarian convenience.(2)  It was not until August 5, 1868, on the eastern shore of the Italian lake near Varenna and Bellano, that he was struck by the sensuous experience of walking through them—and by their pictorial potential.(3) On two pages of his sketchbook he quickly penciled several horizontal and vertical miniatures of lake and tunnel vistas, including the germinal view through the tunnels with the glimpse of the lake which appealed to his burgeoning interest in pictorial design.(4) He developed the latter as a tonal study, vignetted by a tunnel entrance, and as an oil sketch the next day, further defining and separating shapes tonally, exploring the color contrast of warm foreground and cool distance and beginning to define textures.(5) More of the lake vista is incorporated, as well as such picturesque local figures, culled from the pencil sketches, as a peasant couple gazing at the view and a silhouetted ecclesiastic in a wide-brimmed hat.(6)

Plumbing earlier material, Gifford seized upon the 1868-70 conception for further development, producing the largest version that was announced in the Tribune, entered on a “List of Chief Pictures” among the artist’s papers, and exhibited at the Utica Art Association in 1879 (where it was purchased on March 7 by Mrs. James Watson Williams). The final image’s design impact is strengthened (and the artist-pedestrian’s sequential experience suggested) by further darkening and regularizing the natural frame, and tonally unifying and contrasting the large shapes of sunlit road, cliffside, and cavernous shadow. While such descriptive details as castle and villas, Woods and meadow, boat and reflections are specified in the haze-veiled distance, the painting’s unity is enhanced by integrating distance and foreground in a warm ambience. Added to the cast of local characters is a casually dressed, strolling tourist who is attracted to the view and probably represents the artist himself. Combining the visually tantalizing effects of aerial-luminism with assertive graphic design, the painting realizes the goals of Gifford’s last decade, which, in turn, reflect the trend toward aestheticism of the late nineteenth century.



1. It is no. 691 (The Galleries of the Stelvio, Lago di Como, dated 1878, 24 X 30”, coll. of Mrs. James Watson Williams, Utica, N.Y.) in A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Rohinson Gifford, N.A., with a Biographical and Critical Essay by Prof John F. Weir of the Yale School of Fine Arts (New York: 1881; repr., New York: Olana Gallery, 1974). For a more detailed discussion of this painting and related works, see Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1987).

2. “There are a great many galleries and tunnels to protect the road from avalanches.” Sanford R. Gifford, “European Letters,” Archives ofAmerican Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., vol. 2 (July 28, 1857), pp. 177-78.

3. “Delightfully cool they were, like wells, going into them from the hot sun.” Ibid., vol. 3, p. 27.

4. Gifford sketchbook, “Maggiore, Como, Sicily, Rome, Genoa, 1868,” pp. 46-47, 4 ¾ X 9”, on (leposit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, N.Y. The tonal study is inscribed “Galleries of the Stelvio Rd. Lake Como Aug ’68.” See Ila Weiss, “Sanford R. Gifford in Europe: A Sketchbook of 1868,” American Art Journal, vol. 9 (November 1977), pp. 94-96.

5. Stelvio Road by Lake Como, August 6, 1868, oil on canvas, 9 7/8 X 8 1/8”, Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, Lugano, Switzerland (Memorial Catalogue, no. 506). It is inscribed “Stelvio Road Aug 6 1868 Como,” and illustrated in Barbara Novak, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Nineteenth-Century American Painting (New York: The Vendome Press, 1986), p. 14.7, and in Weiss, Poetic Landscape, p. 314.

6. Two years later he painted an unlocated mid-sized version (Memorial Catalogue, no. 563), with the dimensions given as 20 X 26”. The proportions indicate that this was a related vertically formatted picture with its printed dimensions reversed (as were those of no. 691 in the same publication).



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