On the Hudson presents a majestic view of the Hudson River full of the beauty and tranquility exemplary of Sanford Robinson Gifford's finest works. This painting was found and identified in 1880 after the artist's death by his friend and fellow painter, Jervis McEntee. On the Hudson is described in a letter dated September 30, 2008, from Dr. Ila Weiss: "McEntee had frequently sketched with Gifford in the Hudson River vicinity, including the Hudson Highlands, and would have recognized the mountain in this painting as a romanticized interpretation of Storm King, rising at the northern end of the Highlands as seen from across the Hudson near Newburgh." This painting is in the same series and shares the theme as his most famous work of 1860, Into the Wilderness (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio).
Known to have sketched the Hudson Highlands in October and November of 1860, Gifford captures a landscape in seasonal transition. The mountaintop emerges in two tonal atmospheres, one side infused with pinkish sunlight and the other cooled and wetted by a blue distant rain. Working to develop paintings beyond the more traditional Hudson River School format, Gifford integrated into his works the broader themes of transcendentalism along with the spiritual beauty of nature. In On the Hudson, the receding horizon line reflects the transcendental aspects of landscape. Beginning with the tangible foreground of the defined river shore, the eye then moves up and backward to the more elusive and indiscernible water, then finds itself lost in the vast array of veiled, hazy sky.
This work is exemplary of the Luminist movement, a term assigned to a group of landscape artists whose paintings were characterized by distinct lighting effects that suffuse the composition in a colored haze, creating a poetic, arcadian atmosphere. Critics coining the term Luminism called it "nature seen through a temperament." (in I. Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford, Newark, Delaware, 1987, p. 13) This was done by the dissolution of visible brushstrokes, eliminating the artist's presence, and bringing to the forefront, the purely spiritual and divine in nature. Gifford has succeeded so well in suppressing evidence of his hand that this scene appears to be a landscape created by God, not fabricated by an artist. Barbara Novak noted that, "Luminism was the most profound expositor of transcendental feelings toward God and nature and God as nature." (in J. Wilmerding, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, Washington, D.C., 1980, p. 28)
In its pristine depiction, On the Hudson embodies a powerful and grand scene of God's nature presenting a picture of quiet solitude during a time when man was encroaching on nature. Gifford's painting is intentionally nostalgic view. The sheer beauty of the landscape underscores his primary message that this is a promised land.