In this ongoing series for Fine Art Today, we take a longer look at the history and features of a soon-to-be-available artwork of note. This week: Gideon Jacques Denny’s “Coastal Cliffs.”

Gideon Jacques Denny (1830-1886) cultivated a love for the sea and the beauty it offered at an early age. Born in Delaware, Denny frequently sailed the Chesapeake Bay as a young man before heading to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849. His passion for art and drive to create eventually led to an apprenticeship in Milwaukee with Samuel Marsden Brookes, a still life painter with whom Denny would have a lifelong friendship. Denny and Brookes moved together to San Francisco six years later and set up a small studio on Bush Street. By the end of his life, Denny had become the most coveted maritime and seascape painter in San Francisco. Collectors had come to admire the artist’s penchant for displaying ships in distress and his talent for capturing nature. In addition to his fame as an artist, Denny served as the first director of the San Francisco Art Association and was active in the Bohemian Club, Pacific Union Club, and Society of Californian Pioneers. 

The work featured here, titled “Coastal Cliffs” and dated 1879, is a magnificent example of his mature manner. A subtle golden hue falls over the canvas, providing balance and leaving the viewer with the sense that we’ve just emerged from a violent storm. Flashes of white from breaking waves and a retreating dark cloud at upper left offer visual interest and a sense of dramatic kinetic energy. This movement is reinforced through Denny’s masterful composition. A low horizon line provides a stable reference for the diagonal lines of the surf and beach. Our eyes are brought back into the scene via imposing cliffs to the right, which recede into the distance and leave us at the center of the canvas. Flocks of seagulls dart and scatter over the cliffs while a distant steamboat cruises along the horizon to the left. Denny has splendidly captured the beauty of the shore while reminding his viewers of their smallness and fragility.

“Coastal Cliffs” will feature in the July 20 Art + Décor sale at Bonhams, San Francisco. Auction estimates are $3,000-$5,000.
To view the full catalogue, visit Bonhams.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.


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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


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