A self-taught marine and landscape painter, the Fairhaven, Massachusetts native was exposed to the art of New Bedford masters Albertus van Beest, William Bradford and Alfred Bierstadt while a teenager. It is believed that he began to paint prior to his service in the American Civil War in 1862-1864, but the earliest known works by Gifford are from 1865. His unique presentation of American luminist qualities in his art were often celebrations of places he personally cherished.
Gifford had established himself in a New Bedford studio by 1868, and was actively producing works depicting the shores and islands of southeast New England, as well as a few from New Hampshire's white mountains. Cuttyhunk, Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands were all portrayed. When commercial success began to follow, he spread afield, and traveled to Ireland, Scotland and London in 1879.
Interesting that Gifford chose small formats for a majority of his paintings, often no larger than 9 x 14 inches. Influences from the Hudson River School on presentation carry through to Gifford, but it is as a luminist he is best known. Importance was given each atmosphere he painted, alongside the physical subjects which most often share with a portion of the Atlantic ocean.. he continued briefly into the 20th century, and the majority of his works after 1889 are watercolors.