Sanford Gifford produced exquisitely refined paintings of nineteenth century landscapes, many of Northeastern America from Maryland to the Adirondacks to New Hampshire, but also of the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and the Middle East. His ability to use light to convey emotion calls to mind that tendency of the great luminists, whose preoccupations with atmosphere, light, and painstaking attention to detail Gifford certainly shared. In the summer of 1845 he made his first known landscape sketches, indicating the strong draw of the American landscape for a 22-year-old artist at mid-century. Indeed, just a year later after another tour of the Catskills, he remarks on his "great admiration for the works of Cole" and "having once enjoyed the absolute freedom of the Landscape painter's life...my direction in art was determined." (as quoted in I. Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford, Newark, Delaware, 1987, p. 26)
In 1869 Gifford traveled to Egypt in search of new inspiration. At the end of January of that year he embarked on a six-week trip northward up the Nile. Bayard Taylor, an author and a friend of Gifford's, regarded the Nile as "the Paradise of travel...Here I have reached a fountain too pure and powerful to be exhausted. I never before experienced such a thorough deliverance from all the petty annoyances of travel in other lands, such perfect contentment of spirit, such entire abandonment to the best influences of nature." (Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford, p. 121) Gifford more than likely felt the same way about this exotic nineteenth century destination, and created several remarkable canvases during his short time there, among them On the Nile, Gebel Shekh Hereedee.
On the Nile, Gebel Shekh Hereedee depicts several boats lazily gliding across the calm Nile. A high bank rises in the distance, softened in appearance by the haze that turns the sky gray-blue. Gifford's meticulous attention to detail is evidenced in small touches like the numerous people on the large vessel, the fishing bird flying inches above the water at lower right, and the accurately rendered reflections. In its serenity and composure, Gebel Shekh Hereedee certainly fits the following description: "Sheldon decribed Gifford's Egyptian studies as 'striking in their temperance of treatment,' 'wholly free from extravagance or artificiality,' and 'marked by the greatest purity of colouring.'" (Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford, p. 293) Indeed, Gifford's abilities, exhibited here, rank him among America's great landscape painters.