The son of an iron foundry, Sanford Gifford was born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, New York but spent most of his childhood in Hudson, New York. Gifford was a part of a second generation of landscape painters who were members of the Hudson River School. His paintings of the Hudson River area and Adirondack Mountains highlighted mood and serenity, now known as luminism. Luminism is characterized by a hazy atmosphere with soft sunlight. Unlike some of the other landscape painters of his time, Gifford did not believe in replicating European styles while creating his paintings.
Like many of his counterparts, Gifford traveled the world in search of beautiful landscapes to paint. He traveled to New York, New England, the Rocky Mountains, the Middle East, and Europe. He kept and eventually settled in a studio in New York City where he painted much of what he saw during his travels. Gifford referred to his best paintings as his "chief pictures," some of which include: Lake Nemi (1856-57), The Wilderness (1861), A Passing Storm (1866), and Ruins of the Parthenon (1880).
Gifford passed away on August 29, 1880, of malarial fever at age fifty-eight. Soon after his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored Gifford with a memorial exhibit showcasing over 160 of his paintings.