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Samuel W. Griggs (1827–98),

Bostonian painter Samuel W. Griggs was a prolific and commercially successful artist, best known for his paintings of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, but also for his coastal works depicting Maine and New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island. He is listed as an architect in the Boston City directory from 1848 to 1852, and then as an artist from 1854 until his death. He exhibited at the Boston Athenæum and the Boston Art Club. Griggs appears to have had connections with Albert Bierstadt, exhibiting in a New Bedford, Massachusetts exhibition organized by the famous landscape artist. Commentators have noted stylistic similarities between the painters and some have speculated that Griggs may have studied under Bierstadt.

The Studio Building
The Studio Building, 110 Tremont Street, Boston, where Griggs roomed and worked.

Rocky Coast, 1866

The painting’s title gives no indication of the location depicted, or whether it is a specific or a constructed view. The dramatic cliffs closely resemble those in other Griggs’s paintings of the Maine coast, a magnet for many prominent painters including William Trost Richards and Alfred Thompson Bricher.

Fishermen on the Maine Coast
Samuel W. Griggs, Fisherman on the Maine Coast, 1861

A remarkable aspect of the painting is its date, one year after the close of the Civil War. While there are no direct signs of conflict in the painting, it could not help but have been in the minds of both artist and contemporary viewers. The depiction of rough waters viewed from a distance may speak to a postwar mindset. In spite of hazards, youthful figures point to a steamship on the horizon, a sign of commerce, travel, and opportunity.

Oil on canvas, 20 x 40 in., McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1988.332


While Griggs renders the sky broadly in flat areas of blue, gray, and white, the treatment is effective in its depiction of diffuse light. The dulling of colors in distant masses such as the cliffs, i.e., atmospheric perspective, in vision is caused by particles in the air between the viewer and a faraway object. Many American landscape painters of the second half of the nineteenth century, like Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane, experimented with atmospheric light effects. Employing visible, gestural brush strokes, Griggs’s approach to light is more painterly than many of his New England contemporaries.

One of the painting’s more engaging passages is this line of breaking waves, which effectively depicts sunlight diffused through moving water. The translucent effect is the result of building the color in a series of semi-transparent glazes, an academic technique dating back to the Renaissance.

Griggs renders his figures more sketchily and less precisely than he does the landscape. The figures’ loose-fitting blouses and simple trousers may indicate youth. Their flat, wide-brimmed hats, resembling those of the Amish, point to country life—by mid-century, top hats and form-fitting pants were the popular fashion for men in urban centers.

Dramatic cliffs are a common feature of nineteenth-century American landscape painting. Many contemporary works feature vast, dynamic views meant to evoke the sublime—a feeling of awe and even terror at the greatness of nature. The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke popularized the sublime in art, in an essay that focused on the physiological effects of the depiction of things “dark, uncertain, and confused.” In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson saw natural beauty, viewed in solitude, as the manifestation of the divine. American painters like Frederic Church and William Morris Hunt painted vast scenes of mountains, forests, and waterfalls, with an eye to the movement of water, clouds, and light, with great specificity and detail, following the instruction of influential critic John Ruskin: “Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied with equal industry, and rendered with equal precision.”

Frederic Church, Niagra
Frederic Church’s Niagara (1857) is a contemporary work intended to elicit the sublime.

The rock walls depicted here are typical of the granitic formations that occur along the Coastal Volcanic Belt, a line of igneous cliffs and crags extending from Massachusetts to New Brunswick.

The earliest steam engines date to the eighteenth century. In North America, steam became a major form of transportation after Robert Fulton’s 1807 development of a commercially viable model of boat. In the years leading up to the Civil War, paddle boats were a mover not only of cargo but also of people. By the 1850s, rail transportation had begun to compete with paddle boats for passengers with the result that after the Civil War steamboat travel diminished precipitously; soon after that, screw propellers made paddle boats obsolete.

In contrast to the familiar rear-wheeled paddle boats of Mark Twain’s stories, this ship is a side-wheeler, a design favored for coastal waters because of its superior steering. Side-wheeling frigates had been used for naval combat in the Civil War. Griggs does not indicate whether his ship is military or merchant marine.

S.S. California
The S.S. California (1848) was a side-wheeler that was the first steamship to travel from Central America to North America.

The lightly colored bodies and sharply contrasting black wingtips suggest that these are herring gulls, the most common gull in Maine and the Northeast.


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