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.
lower left: S.R. Gifford 1880
Estate of the artist; purchased 12 April 1881 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Fifty-fith Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, March-May 1880, no. 261.
- 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.
- De Gustibus: An Exhibition of American Paintings Illustrating a Century of Taste and Criticism, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, January-February 1949, no. 24.
- The American Muse: Parallel Trends in Literature and Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959, no. 52.
- 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.
- American Luminism, Coe Kerr Gallery, New York, 1978, no. 29, repro.
- American Light: The Luminist Movement, National Gallery of Art, Washington, unnumbered catalogue.
- 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.
- 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.
- Nature as Nation: 19th-Century American Landscapes from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 30 August 2008-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 44, no. 15.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 45, no. 15.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 39.
- 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.