Previously noted as "Whereabouts unknown" in the literature on the artist, Sanford Robinson Gifford's Coming Rain on Lake George: A Sketch is based on a known pencil sketch in the artist's sketchbook, dated 1873, and is the preliminary study for the larger known oil titled A Sudden Storm, Lake George (Coming Rain, Lake George) from circa 1877 (Private collection). These three works sit contextually within a series of Lake George storm subjects begun as early as 1863 through 1879 inspired by Gifford's annual trips to the Catskills. Coming Rain on Lake George: A Sketch is a magnificent masterpiece in its depiction of nature's peace and calm, while simultaneously suggesting her impending sublime force. Gifford's palette and strong horizon lines imbue the work with a dual sense of peace and tranquility, as well as potential discord and danger.
Coming Rain on Lake George: A Sketch was painted in between two trips the artist took out West, the first in 1870 and the second in 1874. The sketches and works executed during and after these trips, and those executed during his yearly sojourns to upstate New York, illustrate the importance of oil sketches within Gifford's oeuvre.
Kevin Avery writes, "Gifford's nearly annual sojourns in the Civil War years were augmented by a tour of the Berkshires in 1863 and, in September, by a trip to Lake George and the Adirondacks." (Hudson River School Visions - The Landscapes of Sanford Robinson Gifford, New York, 2003, p. 148) On this trip, two of the pencil drawings Gifford executed in his sketchbook depict storm clouds over a lake, one which incorporates a canoe with small figures in the foreground. The result of these sketches were two canvases, similar in composition. The smaller, sketchier of the two, and possibly executed in the field due to its size, is titled A Coming Storm on Lake George, (Private collection) and the latter, larger composition is titled A Coming Storm (Private collection). Through his workings from sketch to final canvas, the play between light and dark, in conjunction with well-balanced compositional elements result in a masterpiece highlighting Gifford's ability to depict the beautiful and sublime aspects of nature's forces. This theme reappears again in 1873 in Coming Rain on Lake George: A Sketch.
Upon Gifford's return from Colorado and Wyoming in September 1870, the artist resumed his interest in Hudson River subject matter, evident in Coming Rain on Lake George: A Sketch. The artist's sketchbook used between 1870 and 1879 is full of drawings and sketches from his travels to the Catskill mountains. Included in this sketchbook is the related drawing to the current painting. In a letter dated September 29, 2004, Ila Weiss writes "The Lake George drawing can be fairly certainly dated early Sept., 1873. The drawing, quickly capturing a striking, fleeting effect of light and weather, establishes the relative positions of land masses and the effect of a storm cloud darkening the peninsula of Tongue Mountain, with Black Mountain broadly lit at the right. Illuminated trees against the shaded short at the left are also noted. A cluster of fleeing boats is economically indicated by the shaded shapes and reflections of passengers. The painting greatly intensifies the effects of the chiaroscuro, separating the boats as two accents of white with touches of color against the darker area of reflection, answering the lighted cloud above and the luminous distance. It retains almost all the drawing's horizontal middle-distant land mass at the left."
The present work exhibits a dramatic, horizontal landscape, radiating a sublime force through Gifford's play of light and dark. The horizon line is set in the middle of the canvas, allowing the viewer's eye to move along the balanced yet undulating mountain baseline. This balance and solidity is enhanced by the expanse of gray-blue water of Lake George. The scene eschews a sense of calm with its soothing palette, calm water, and the presence of two manned canoes at bottom left. They drift pleasantly in the water, unaware of the potentially threatening cloud mass behind them. The white of the canoes and the gay colors of the passengers' red and yellow clothing highlight this momentary sense of calm. The bright blue sky, its reflection in the water below, and the distant view of mountains, further inflect the painting with a sense of the grandeur and beauty of Lake George.
Gifford's palette is equally dramatic on the opposite side of the canvas. The previously bright palette of the sky, water and mountains is replaced by darker contrasts of gray and blue, and yellow and green in the landscape and water, all shrouded by looming, rain-filled clouds. Whereas the preparatory pencil sketch depicts buoyant, unmenacing clouds, here the artist fills the space with billowing dark clouds and mist-filled canyons. The effect is that of a moving storm mass, given force by its dark, atmospheric palette, looming over the central mountains, creeping closer to the calm waters and canoers. Although titled A Sketch by the artist, this painting is a powerful, finished work of art. Weiss notes about Coming Rain on Lake George: A Sketch, "The oil sketch under consideration is our best and most satisfying record of the dramatic scene that impressed the artist in Sept. 1873. Its balanced composition of striking tonal effects conveys at once the power and beauty of nature that inspired the artist."
A letter from Dr. Ila Weiss dated September 29, 2004 accompanies this lot.