We are grateful to Dr. Ila Weiss for preparing the following essay:
This painting is closely related to the well-known exhibition piece of the same subject at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (18 ½ by 38 ½ in., dated 1876, Gifford Memorial Catalogue #645 as 23 by 42 in.), which was shown at the National Academy of Design in 1877 and listed by Gifford among his “Chief Pictures.” One other painting of Leander’s Tower (MC 644,13 by 27 in.) was exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association in 1878 (#67) and is currently on loan to the Fogg Art Museum. It is possible that the present work may be A Sketch on the Bosphorus (MC 661, sold in 1877), but the lack of specified dimensions and absence of Leander’s Tower in the title—despite its inscription on the verso—makes that identification far from certain.
Gifford spent less than a week in Constantinople in May 1869, describing it as “a vision of fairyland” with “towers and domes and minarets glittering and golden in the early sun.” Mainly in pencil, he sketched the clustered sails in its bustling port, and the skyline with its recognizable architectural features [Sketchbook of 1869 given to Richard Butler by Gifford’s heirs in 1887 and separated for sale by Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, in 1976]. He also drew the eighteenth century masonry replacement for a twelfth century watch tower known as Leander’s Tower or the Maiden’s Tower, referring to a local legend, using white chalk to emphasize the picturesque effect of morning light on its sculptural forms. The tower was viewed from on or near the shore of Uskudar on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, opposite the mouth of the Golden Horn, accessible by boat.
Gifford’s general practice was to begin with pencil sketches and develop some of them in oils that progressively increase in size and refinement. The version of Leander’s Tower on the Bosphorus under consideration is intermediary between the pencil drawing, inscribed “Leander’s Tower—Bosphorus,” and the final version at the Fogg (and most likely the related mid-sized painting on loan there). It is quite close to the drawing, possibly the first painted version or more likely developed from a lost smaller study. The proportions of the tower are somewhat altered compared with the drawing, its height exaggerated and its base structure lowered to create a more graceful form. The city’s recognizable panorama, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the walls of the Seraglio, studied separately in the sketchbook, is suggested just to the right of the tower in the drawing. It is extended and shifted further to the right in the painting to relieve the featured structure against a minimal horizon line articulated with sails glinting pink in the morning light. A graceful rowed boat is added to the painting, closest to the viewer, suspended on the dimly glowing field of atmosphere and reflection, its passengers established with dabs of white and bright red. It represents the “luxurious but tottlish caique, pulled by a white-shirted, white-bearded, red fezzed, brawny rower,” that provided sightseeing from the water to the delighted artist. A more distant boat, with a brown sail in near silhouette against the subdued atmospheric glow, its occupants conjured by small dots of dull red and white, measures the recession into luminous haze. Perfectly representing Gifford’s style and intentions, the effect of light on the solid forms of the tower, indicated in the drawing, is now amplified with white impasto. Such relatively thickly painted accents, including mottled tints of yellows, pinks and reds of the structure’s stony walls and tile roofs, and the dabs of white and color on boats and figures, serve to emphasize their substance in contrast to the vaporous distance where more thinly painted, delicate lights on walls and domes penetrate the haze enticingly.
In keeping with Gifford’s practice, the exhibition piece further elaborates changes suggested by the smaller painting. Its tonality is lightened, its color more calculated, with hazy pink light obscuring the horizon, imperceptibly cooling toward gray-blue at the upper edge, reflected along the bottom edge. The tower is considerably stretched vertically and extended in reflection to the bottom edge to more forcefully intersect the still wider horizontal expanse. The space is deepened, with the sail boat and distant shore relatively smaller and the now haze obscured, glowing horizon sprinkled with more numerous light reflecting sails. A flying bird added near the center foreground dramatizes the spatial ambiguity. While anticipating such effects, the smaller painting retains the immediacy, intimacy and pleasure of the original penciled experience. When seen in Gifford’s studio in April 1876, the exhibition piece was described as “the view looking towards Stamboul and Seraglio Point; the Oriental craft, with their bright colored sails, floating dreamily on the calm waters, the picturesque tower with its odd signal apparatus, the warmth of color in the atmosphere and throughout the picture, making a rich and pleasing effect” (“Art News,“ Daily Graphic, New York, April 24, 1876, p. 5).