Of all the Hudson River School artists, Sanford Gifford was one of the few actually native to the Hudson River Valley, having been born in Greenfield, New York. Gifford attended Brown University for two years before deciding to become an artist. He studied in New York with drawing master John Rubens Smith, and attended drawing classes at the National Academy of Design, where he worked from plaster casts.
Gifford's earliest efforts focused on portraiture, but by the mid-1840s, his attention turned to landscapes. Reflecting on this time he wrote in a letter to O.B. Frothingham on November 6, 1874: "During the summer of 1846 I made several pedestrian tours in the Catskill Mts., and the Berkshire Hills, and made a good many sketches from nature. These studies, together with the great admiration I felt for the works of Cole, developed a strong interest in landscape art, and opened my eyes to a keener perception and more intelligent enjoyment of nature. Having once enjoyed the absolute freedom of the landscape artist's life, I was unable to return to portrait painting. From this time my direction in art was determined" (Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, New York, 2003, p. 6).
Cole's death in 1848 was followed by a large retrospective exhibition of his work at the American Art-Union. Though it is not known if Gifford attended the exhibition, it is likely that he did; indeed many of his early paintings recall Cole's work, particularly his choice of the Catskill Mountains as a subject. Gifford's work, however, was more fundamentally rooted in and inspired by his direct observations from nature than Cole's often literary or historical scenes. Gifford generally made quick pencil sketches to record his immediate impressions and these, along with small oil studies, served as a point of departure for his larger studio compositions.
In the exhibition catalogue, Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, Franklin Kelly writes of a related painting of this period: “The immediate inspiration for [The Wilderness, 1860 (The Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)] was the artist’s trip in the summer of 1859, which took him and fellow artist George H. Boughton to Nova Scotia, Maine and New Hampshire…Gifford’s sketchbook of July-August 1859 (The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York) contains only a few drawings of the Nova Scotia scenery, but he did make a number of sketches of the local Micmac and their tepees and canoes…Although likely not meant to portray a specific mountain in an identifiable location, the shape of the peak in The Wilderness suggests that of Mount Katahdin in Maine…Others must have been equally admiring, for there are several smaller…variants of The Wilderness that may have been commissions or at least produced by the artist for immediate sale. These include Indian Lake [Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Massachusetts], where the form of the mountain is reversed; Indian Summer (about 1861; Private Collection); and the elegantly reductive 1861 work also known as The Wilderness [the present work]. In this painting, the watery foreground is relieved only by small bits of land at the lower right corner of the composition. A jumble of angular boulders flanked by wiry pine trees is rhymed in larger scale directly across the lake, where a massive overhang shelters a group of tepees. The distinctive strata of these rocks are in turn echoed by what appears to be the same geological seam running across the flank of the mountain, and leading the eye into the luminous distance” (New York, 2003, pp. 114-5, 117).