Born and raised in the center of the Hudson River Valley, Sanford Gifford came from a family that supported and encouraged his artistic leanings, and whose prosperity meant he could pursue painting without financial worries. Gifford began training in New York City to be a portrait painter, but--inspired by the work of the American landscapist Thomas Cole--turned to landscape painting. Gifford spent the summer of 1846 touring and sketching in the Catskill and Berkshire mountains. By 1847, he had begun to show his work at the American Art-Union and the National Academy of Design in New York, where he was elected an associate in 1850 and an academician in 1854.
In 1855, Gifford traveled to Europe, where he spent two-and-a-half years visiting the great repositories of art and sketching scenery in England, Scotland, France, the Low Countries, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In England, he admired the color and light in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, and discussed his work with the critic John Ruskin. Gifford was also impressed by the work of the French landscape painters of the Barbizon school, but wrote in his journal of the dangers of surrendering to a particular method or school of painting, lest they "usurp the place of Nature."
When Gifford returned to the United States in 1857, he took up quarters in the new Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City but left it nearly every summer to sketch in the countryside. Favorite settings in this period were the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains in Vermont, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and various locales in Maine and Nova Scotia.
During the early years of the Civil War, Gifford served in New York's renowned Seventh Regiment. In 1868 Gifford went abroad for a second and last time, spending more than a year traveling in Europe and the Middle East. Along with notable artists and civic leaders of the day, he was a founder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. After his death in 1880, he was honored with the Metropolitan's first monographic retrospective and a memorial catalogue of his known pictures.