Object of the Week: Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound

How great is SAM’s painting by Sanford Robinson Gifford of Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound?


1. It’s been made into a cake. In 1990, when the museum acquired the painting, we celebrated its arrival with a cake that sported a frosting facsimile.

It's a cake with a painting on it!

2. It features “the original Tacoma Dome.” In 2011, SAM’s awesome marketing team (still awesome, by the way) produced a pithy billboard with a reproduction of the Gifford painting, beckoning Seattleites to come see the Beauty and Bounty exhibition in which it starred that summer.

"The Original Tacoma Dome" billboard

3. Its artistic merits, of course. Gifford had an immaculate sense for atmospheric light and color that gave rise, in later scholarship, to the very appropriate term luminism.

4. The vision it provides of life in the Puget Sound at a time when natives lived here in harmony with the land.

Here’s the story. Gifford traveled to the Washington Territory in the summer of 1874, and he was clearly moved by the imposing view of Mount Rainier from Commencement Bay in Tacoma. He sketched out several different compositions in pencil from various vantage points across the bay. We even know the day when he produced the drawing that inspired this painting: September 1. Later, in the winter of 1875, he worked up the full painting in his New York studio.

You can see Gifford's pencil lines demarcating the horizon line and dome of Rainier due to a thin paint layer that has become even more transparent with age.

You can see Gifford’s pencil lines demarcating the horizon line and dome of Rainier, due to a thin paint layer that has become even more transparent with age.

Gifford, like his rough contemporary Albert Bierstadt, excelled in producing romantic visions of the West that appealed to East Coast and, increasingly, international audiences, for whom the rugged terrain and the different lifestyle of the natives here carried the appeal of the exotic. Gifford’s Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound is a romanticized view: He would have seen more evidence of the lumber industry beginning to transform the landscape around the time he visited. Still, the artist communicates a sense of awe and discovery that seems entirely genuine. His painting helps me see the true beauty of Mt. Rainier and the diverse landscape of Puget Sound with fresh eyes and a greater sense of appreciation. Gifford reminds us that in the Pacific Northwest, as much as anywhere, we have an abundance of natural beauty for which to be thankful, that we might appreciate it, enjoy it, and always aim to take good care of it.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images:  Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound, 1875, Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, born Greenfield, N.Y. 1823; died New York City 1880), oil on canvas, 21 x 40 in. Seattle Art Museum, Partial and promised gift of Ann and Tom Barwick and gift, by exchange, of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Brechemin; Max R. Schweitzer; Hickman Price, Jr., in memory of Hickman Price; Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Mr. and Mrs. Norman Hirschl; and the Estate of Louise Raymond Owens, 90.29, Paul Macapia. Photo: SAM Archive. Photo: SAM Archive. Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound (detail).