Sanford Robinson Gifford was born in Greenfield, New York, in 1823. He attended Brown University from 1842-1844 and moved to New York City in 1845 where he studied drawing, perspective and anatomy under the direction of the British watercolorist and drawing-master, John R. Smith. He also studied the human figure in anatomy classes at the Crosby Street Medical college and took drawing classes at the National Academy of Design. In 1846 he visited the Berkshire Hills and the Catskill Mountains, sketching from nature. "These studies," he wrote to O. B. Frothingham in 1874, "together with the great admiration I felt for the works of Cole developed a strong interest in landscape art, and opened my eyes to a keener perception and more intelligent enjoyment of nature. Having once enjoyed the absolute freedom of the landscape painters life I was unable to return to portrait painting."
The American Art Union bought and showed some of Gifford's first pictures in 1847. In 1851 he was elected an associate, and in 1854 an academician, of the National Academy of Design.
Gifford traveled widely to sketch landscapes for future paintings, recording his experiences in letters to his father which he intended would "serve the double purpose of letter and journal, and be an economy of time." He requested that his father number the letters sequentially and keep them together.
In the summer of 1855 Gifford visited England, Scotland and Paris, where he spent the winter of 1855 transforming his English and Scottish sketches into paintings. In the fall of 1856 he rented a studio in Rome and, over the course of the winter, painted pictures that reportedly pleased him "pretty well," including Lake Nemi. During the spring of 1857, Gifford spent time with fellow artists Worthington Whittredge, William H. Beard and Albert Bierstadt before leaving Rome in May with Bierstadt for a walking tour of southern Italy, where they planned to reconnect with Whittredge and Beard. Gifford ended his European tour with a visits to Innsbruck, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Berlin and Paris, before returning to the United States at the end of the summer.
On his return Gifford rented studio Number 19 in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City, which he retained until his death. Over the next few years he also made frequent summer trips to various northeastern locales including the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains in Vermont, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Maine and Nova Scotia.
Gifford served in New York's Seventh Regiment when it marched to the defense of Washington in April 1861, and again in 1862 and 1863. Several paintings resulted from this experience, including Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron (1861), Bivouac of the Seventh Regiment at Arlington Heights, Virginia (1861) and Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, in July 1863 (1864).
In 1868 Gifford returned to Europe, again visiting London and Paris, where he met with friends Jervis McEntee and his wife. He then spent the summer visiting the Alps and Sicily before wintering in Rome. In 1869 he traveled to Egypt where he and a small party hired a boat to take them on a two-month voyage from Cairo down the Nile River. Subsequently, Gifford traveled to the Middle East with Alfred Craven via the Suez Canal, where his itinerary included Syria, Jerusalem, Samaria, Damascus, Greece and Turkey. Gifford arrived in Venice in June 1869 and sailed for the United States at the beginning of September.
In 1870 Gifford visited Colorado with Worthington Whittredge and John Frederick Kensett, and accompanied a United States Geological party under Dr. Hayden in the exploration of Wyoming, Utah, and the Colorado Territories. In the summer of 1873 he visited California, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska.
Gifford married in 1877 but in 1880 became ill and died of malarial fever and pneumonia at the age of 58. That same year he was honored with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's first monographic retrospective and a memorial catalogue of his known pictures.