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Overview

Like his friend and fellow artist Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford sought inspiration both in the northeastern United States and further afield. The Ruins of the Parthenon derives from sketches he made while visiting the Acropolis in 1869. In this depiction, the famous temple is surrounded by strewn architectural fragments and studied by a sketching artist (possibly a self-portrait) and his Greek guide. However, the hilltop setting ultimately serves to showcase another more subtle motif: a remarkable range of light and atmospheric effects that Gifford rendered with unrivaled and much-heralded finesse. The sky's nearly invisible transitions from pale pinks near the horizon to deep blues above evidence the artist's frequent remark to his brother that of all of his paintings, this one demanded the most "painstaking labor." Tellingly, Gifford referenced his precise portrayal of light and atmosphere by deeming the completed work "not a picture of a building, but a picture of a day."

The artist considered The Ruins of the Parthenon—his last important painting—the crowning achievement of his career, and hoped that it would be acquired by an American museum. When he visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and reached the gallery featuring Church's Niagara, he remarked: "there would be a good place for my ‘Parthenon.'" Although the painting remained unsold at Gifford's death, the Corcoran purchased it at his estate sale in 1881 for $5,100, at the time the highest price ever paid for one of the artist's paintings.

Inscription

lower left: S.R. Gifford 1880

Provenance

Estate of the artist; purchased 12 April 1881 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1880
Fifty-fith Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, March-May 1880, no. 261.
1880
The Memorial Collection of the Works of the Late Sanford R. Gifford, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 1880-March 1881, no. 27, as The Parthenon.
1949
De Gustibus: An Exhibition of American Paintings Illustrating a Century of Taste and Criticism, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, January-February 1949, no. 24.
1959
The American Muse: Parallel Trends in Literature and Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959, no. 52.
1970
Sanford Robinson Gifford 1823-1880, University of Texas Art Museum, Austin; Albany Institute of History and Art; Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York, 1970-1971, no. 64.
1978
American Luminism, Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, 1978, no. 29, repro.
1980
American Light: The Luminist Movement, National Gallery of Art, Washington, unnumbered catalogue.
2003
Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sandord R. Gifford, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003-2004, no. 70.
2005
Encouraging Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton NY; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte NC; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 46.
2008
Nature as Nation: 19th-Century American Landscapes from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 30 August 2008-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
2008
The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
Bibliography
1882
Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 44, no. 15.
1887
Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 45, no. 15.
1947
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 39.
2011
Kelly, Franklin. "Sanford Robinson Gifford, Ruins of the Parthenon." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 11, 150-151, 269, repro.