On 1 January 1869 Sanford Robinson Gifford set out to tour the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. After a brief stay in Cairo, he boarded a dahabeah (double-masted sailing vessel) to traverse the Nile. His letters describe a picturesque panorama—animal caravans, men in colorful robes, women swathed in gold and gauze—but On the Nile, painted after his return to his New York studio, presents a deeply subjective impression of atmosphere and light. Relying on a small oil sketch, as well as his memory, Gifford composed his scene in three horizontal bands: shimmering water, parched land, and opalescent sky. The white sail of the felucca (sail boat) casts a luminous reflection on the river’s surface. Shunning any dramatic device or exotic cliché, Gifford captures the subtle and purely sensory experience of bright winter light shining through the dust-filled desert air.

From Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 89 (2015)
Artist Sanford Robinson Gifford, American, 1823-1880
  • On the Nile
Date 1872
Medium oil on canvas
Dimensions Overall: 17 × 31 inches (43.2 × 78.7 cm)
Credit Line Museum Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Associates of the American Wing Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, and Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Fund
Accession Number 2011.18
Department American Art before 1950
On View American W280, Level 2 (see map)
Signed Signed and dated, lower right: S.R. Gifford 1872
the artist;
by 1876-1881, J. I. Nesmith (Brooklyn, New York, USA).
Victor D. Spark (New York, USA);
until 1972, Douglas B. Collins (Longmeadow, Massachusetts, USA);
1972-1973, Vose Galleries (Boston, Massachusetts, USA);
1973-1987, Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr. (Richmond, Virginia, USA).
1995-1996, Berry-Hill Galleries (New York, New York, USA);
1996-2011, private collection;
2011-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
“Art. The Brooklyn Association. Twenty-fifth Exhibition of Pictures.” New-York Daily Tribune (December 14, 1872): p. 4.

A Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford. Exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1881, no. 580.

Thompson, D. Dodge. “American Artists in North Africa and the Middle East, 1797-1914.” Antiques 126 (August 1984): pp. 308, 310 (ill.).

American Paintings IV. New York, 1986, pp. 32-33 (ill.).

Avery, Kevin J. and Franklin Kelly, ed. Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford. New York, 2003, pp. 192-194 (ill.).