Robert Swain Gifford received his first instruction in drawing during the late 1850s from Albert van Beest and William Bradford at New Bedford, Massachusetts. Later, Walton Richetson, a New Bedford sculptor, shared his studio with Gifford. In 1864 Gifford opened a studio in Boston, but in 1866 settled in New York City. One year later, he was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design and was made a full academician in 1878. In 1869 he sketched in Washington, Oregon, and California, and in 1870 made an extensive trip abroad, visiting England, France, Spain, Italy, Morocco, and Egypt. Four years later, he made a similar journey that included Corsica, Algeria, and parts of North Africa seldom visited by tourists. About ten years later, he returned for a third visit to the Middle East.
After this, Gifford divided his time between his New York studio and his summer home at Nonquitt, Massachusetts, with the exception of a three month voyage to Alaska in 1899 with a scientific party led by E. H. Harriman. Beginning in 1877 and for nearly thirty years thereafter, he taught art classes at the Cooper Union School in New York. Gifford won medals at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, at the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris, at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, and at the Charleston Exposition of 1902. One of the earliest Americans to take up the technique of etching, Gifford helped to establish the New York Etching Club in 1877.
Born on a small New England island under the most difficult cirumstances (seven of his ten siblings died in childhood), Gifford's early paintings, which featured dramatic seascapes with storm-tossed boats, reflected his natural respect for this subject as well as his lessons with the Dutch painter van Beest. During his second trip abroad in 1874, Gifford visited the art museum in Marseille, whose "fine collection of modern French paintings" may have reinforced his admiration for the Barbizon artists he had first seen in Boston several years before. Within a few years after his return, Gifford's style was largely purged of his previously overblown romanticism, which was replaced by stark, simpler compositions, wide spacious vistas, and, most typically, a cold, somber mood drawn from the barren dunes and rugged cedars of the New England coast. The Metropolitan Museum's Near the Coast, variants of which can be found in several other Gifford paintings and etchings, was awarded a $2,500 prize in the first Prize Fund Exhibition held at the American Art Gallery in 1885. In May of 1974, seventy years after his death, Gifford was given a full retrospecitve exhibition by the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Peter Bermingham American Art in the Barbizon Mood (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts and Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975)