Gifford was born on Nonamesset Island near New Bedford, Massachusetts. His father was a fisherman and boatman. His early interest in drawing was followed by study in New Bedford with Albert Van Beest and Benjamin Russell. The combination of his upbringing and his training with two marine painters helped to set marine and coastal subjects as the major themes of his paintings for the rest of his life. Gifford also worked with Van Beest and one of his other students, the marine painter William Bradford, on a series of paintings depicting New Bedford whaling ships.
By 1864 Gifford had opened a painting studio in Boston, and in 1866 he moved to New York where he shared a studio with Samuel Colman. Gifford quickly established himself as a leading landscape painter, becoming an associate of the National Academy of Design in 1867 and a full member in 1878.
Henry Tuckerman wrote in 1867, “Space will not permit us a just analysis of the numerous landscape-painters who, in addition to those we have attempted to describe and estimate, have and are still illustrating the art among us, —some of them promising beginners, and other well known for certain qualities or subjects…—we have the two Smillies, whose highly finished landscapes are so creditable; R. Swain Gifford’s effective coast scenes;…and others.” The Art Journal reported in October of 1877, “R. Swain Gifford is one of the most original of our younger artists. His landscapes are, as a general thing, remarkably true to the local color and characteristics of the scene he paints. There is great variety in his subjects and he treats with equal facility the snow scenes of the Sierras or the pastorals of Brittany.”
Gifford’s paintings may be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Academy of Design, Columbus Museum of Art, Butler Institute of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Century Association, New York, Hudson River Museum, Old Dartmouth Historical Society, National Museum of American Art, Kendall Whaling Museum, Smith College Art Museum, Fine Art Museums at Harvard University, and the Farnsworth Art Museum.