Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
Gifford's itinerary for his second European tour included a stop in Sicily. He landed in Messina on September 7, 1868 and travelled around the island before arriving in Palermo later in the month. The capital of Sicily, Palermo is known as La Città Felice: a reputation based on its semi-tropical climate, fertile vegetation, and magnificent surroundings. Mount Pellegrino rises above the Conca d'Oro, at the North-western extreme of the Bay of Palermo. Its beauty was praised a century before by Goethe as a "large rocky mass broader than it is high [...] its beautiful form cannot be described by words." Gifford captured its appearance as part of the mountainous panorama that spreads across the horizon in his picture. It presides over the low-lying foreground, with the open space of the sea and broad, flat road that leads the viewer's eye toward the city buildings along the far shore. He recorded this scene in at least one pencil drawing and three paintings. This one, the largest and final of the series, belonged to the artist's sister Mary, who waited for him back in Rome while he explored the ill-reputed island.
Gifford travelled not only in the footsteps of Goethe, but also in those of the American landscapist Thomas Cole, who had visited there more than two decades earlier. Cole recorded his own fascination with "the classic land of Sicily": "[...] the impressions left on my mind by its picturesqueness, fertility, and the grandeur of its architectural remains, are more vivid, and fraught with more sublime associations, than any I received during my late sojourn in Europe."
Cole, like most Americans who reached Sicily, depicted Taormina and Mt. Etna. Gifford instead found in this thoroughfare by the sea, peopled with carts and travellers, inspiration for a quiet, contemplative scene.
The artist toured the area sketching its scenery and customs at all hours, including the evening procession of stylish equipages of the Palermitan society that always impressed visitors. Yet when he came to paint this canvas, he depicted the road and its conveyances in bright sunlight (indicated by the shadows). It exemplifies Gifford's unique artistic sensibility and approach to Luminism. With the low horizon line, the greater part of the view is illuminated with this glorious, softly diffused light that conveys a sense of calm. He bathed the mountains, as he often did, in an envelope of mist; this was the visual corollary to his conviction that "the real important matter is not the natural object itself, but the veil of the medium through which we see it." His picture surfaces are carefully modulated. There is evident a subtle gradation of tone from bottom to top, combined with a gradual scale of brushwork: the detailed strokes that define foreground terrain lead into a more painterly middle ground, which then gives way to a more polished application in the upper sky. The distinctive magic of his art can be studied here: his ability to create a carefully-observed view of Palermo, in which topographical specificity is subordinated to the Mediterranean's glorious atmospheric haze.
Katherine E. Manthorne