Published: October 16, 2012
The American Watercolor Movement, which flourished in the 1870s and 1880s, spawned numerous watercolor organizations, encouraged many of the nation’s finest artists to take up the medium and elevated appreciation of watercolors among critics and in museums.
Along with such titans as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, a star of the Golden Age of Watercolor was William Trost Richards (1833‱905), hailed as “America’s best-known watercolor painter” and with good reason. Applying a skillful touch shaped by close observations of nature and marine life, Richards’ exquisite landscapes and marines stand out in an era of outstanding American watercolors.
A Philadelphia native, Richards dropped out of school at the age of 19 to support his family by designing metal fixtures. After private study, he became a professional artist, carrying on his city’s tradition of landscape painters, fostered by the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), which included Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Birch, Thomas Doughty, Jacob Eichholtz and Russell Smith.
At the outset, Richards applied fine, delicate brushwork to precise, representational paintings, notably commissions for views of patrons’ country homes. The meticulous realism of his early work is suggested by “Paschall Homestead at Gibson’s Point, Philadelphia,” 1857.
Other early paintings reflected the descriptive realism of the Hudson River School, such as tightly rendered and topographically accurate renderings of the Catskill and Adirondack mountains. Richards’ handling of light and atmosphere was reminiscent of Frederic Church, who he met and admired.
In 1858, impressed by an exhibition of the precise, detailed work of Britain’s pre-Raphaelites, Richards began to concentrate on meticulous, scientifically exact views of woodland interiors and botanical subjects. Further inspired by the aesthetic theories of Englishman John Ruskin, Richards’ literal treatments of nature led to his identification with the American pre-Raphaelites and his election, in 1863, to the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art.
In the early 1870s, while spending summers on the Atlantic seaboard, Richards turned his attention to coastal scenes. He was especially fascinated by the movement of water, the delicate interplay of light between sea and sky and the changing effects of light on the green-blue of cresting waves. With an infinitely observant, patient eye, Richards was faithful to nature, building up †detail by detail ⁰owerful, intense evocations of sea, sky and rock and their subtly intertwined relationships.
Richards gained prominence for the large size of his works, and continued to paint grand landscapes in oil for the remainder of his career. Having taken up watercolors in the early 1870s, in 1874 Richards was elected a member of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. His watercolors, both large-sized and tiny gems, made him famous and attracted enthusiastic patrons.
In 1875, Richards purchased a summer house in Newport, R.I. As he became familiar with the tenets of Impressionism and plein air painting, he broadened his earlier, precise style, taking greater interest in light and atmosphere and adopting a more subjective approach to nature. His new manner was evident in his numerous landscapes and seascapes of Rhode Island and in marinescapes created during seven trips to Europe, 1891‱903.
Exploring the coasts of England, Scotland and Ireland, the artist sought to record what he called the “many shores where I think no other painter has been.”
His many depictions of surf breaking on deserted shorelines reflected Richards’ penchant for lonely coastal areas and his concern for light and atmosphere. Subtle modulations of dark blues and grays, often highlighted by touches of white and lighter buff tones, were applied in a loose, painterly manner.
Celebrating a recent gift of Richards’ watercolors, PAFA is presenting 110 of them in “A Mine of Beauty, Landscapes by William Trost Richards.” Already seen at the Newport Art Museum, the exhibition is on view through December 30.
The expansive series of small watercolors were created as tokens of affection for the artist’s Philadelphia champion and collector, George Whitney (1819‱885). In appreciation for his patron’s financial support, Richards included roughly 3-by-5-inch watercolors with his weekly letters that the two men joked were “coupons” of their bond †both personal and financial. Encouraged by Whitney’s enthusiasm for these “little gems” †watercolor studies begun in Newport in the 1870s †Richards continued creating them during his travels.
The exhibition, coordinated by PAFA’s curator of historical American Art Anna Marley, is accompanied by a useful catalog. In its day, Whitney’s large collection, which included a “Who’s Who” of American artists and many paintings by Richards, was described as “one of the choicest in America.” Marley notes that at his death, Whitney’s holdings were dispersed except for the small Richards watercolors, which “remained a treasured family possession” until given to PAFA by Dorrance H. Hamilton.
Exhibited alongside a selection of large-scale Richards oils, the Whitney “coupons” encompass scenes in Newport and Conanicut, R.I., as well as views of the southwest coast of England and the River Thames in London.
When he began to summer in Newport in 1874, Richards was captivated by the old colonial community and its rugged, surrounding terrain and shoreline. He conveyed his enthusiasm by including postcard-size sketches in a steady flow of letters to Whitney. They include views of the countryside around Newport after a rain or threatened by a shower, men stacking hay or gathering seaweed, the town’s old graveyard, vacationers viewing surf at Rough Point and romantic nocturnes. As curator Marley observes, the small watercolors “form a cumulative catalog of Newport’s famous natural beauties and picturesque landmarks.”
Bent on expanding his repertoire of coastal scenes, prompted by a shift in American taste from descriptive realism to a more painterly, subjective approach, Richards traveled to England in 1878. Wowed by the “picturesque old churches, romantic coves and tremendous rocks” along the country’s dramatic southern coast, the artist created a series of watercolors that underscored Cornwall’s rugged beauty and pounding seas.
Spectacular rock formations, surging seas, distant castles and solid villages kept Richards busy with watercolors, large and small. The standout here is a finely detailed portrayal, “Mill Bay, Land’s End, Cornwall,” in which the sun descending behind jagged rock formations casts a silvery glow over foreground water †a large subject for a 3¼-by-5-inch watercolor.
The following summer, along the relatively placid coast of Dorset, Richards’ works “suggest[ed] a more settled region and capture[d] with precise delicacy the bustling waterways and harbors,” according to Marley. Standouts among these “little gems” are views of massive, sea-lapped rock formations, quaint fishing villages, crumbling castles and Stonehenge.
Spending his winters in London, Richards was entranced by the River Thames, “I am beginning to learn,” he wrote Whitney in 1879, “that the Thames is the most picturesque river in the world, and I wish I could give myself up to Thames subjects alone. Even [British master artist Joseph M.W.] Turner has not done justice to it.”
The American’s tiny depictions of the river, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London and Richmond Hill are evocative and atmospheric, as are farther flung sites like York Cathedral, Stoke Poges and the Isle of Wight.
Although Richards did not return to Britain until the 1890s, his portfolio of sketches and studies from his two-year sojourn provided subjects for a steady output of oil paintings and large-scale watercolors during the decade of the 1880s. One spectacular example on view is “King Arthur’s Castle,” a 23-by-37-inch watercolor originally created for Whitney and now in a private collection. Looking up from surging waves to massive, gray rock formations towering overhead, the ruins of Arthur’s mythic fortress are silhouetted against a glowering sky.
Returning to Newport, Richards found the area around his home had become crowded and decided to build a house across Narragansett Bay on the southern end of Conanicut Island. “Graycliff,” a shingle-style structure stood on the crest of a granite cliff commanding spectacular views of the Bay, Newport and the open sea.
The artist’s “My Cliffs on Conanicut Island” suggests the rugged setting of the new property, while an 1882 watercolor underscored the lofty perch on which the ample house with an irregular roof and three chimneys was located.
The death of Whitney, his principal patron and promoter, in 1885, was a blow to Richards both personally and professionally. Likely as a memorial to his friend and based on William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” he created a somber, full-size oil, “Old Ocean’s Gray and Melancholy Waste,” which depicts gray, rippling waves as far as the eye can see under a gray-white sky, with no land clearly discernible.
It was clear to Richards and his American contemporaries by this time that, as preeminent Richards expert Linda S. Ferber writes in the catalog, “their generation’s mid-century vision, steeped in the reverence for national scenery portrayed with detail and finish had lost currency in an era of cosmopolitan tastes and more painterly styles.” Nevertheless, Richards persevered in oil and watercolor, landscapes and seascapes over the next several productive decades.
On Conanicut Island, Richards took advantage of his elevated vantage point to record the rocky topography of the island’s shoreline, and in watercolors like “Becalmed, Off Newport,” to capture the beauty of white sailboats plying the placid blue-gray waters of Narragansett Bay.
By this time Richards had acquired a farm, “Oldmixion,” in Chester County, Penn., whose surrounding terrain prompted a return to landscape painting. “Everywhere there are pictures which make me impatient” to paint them, he said.
Although in his Brandywine Valley pictures Richards revisited subjects treated in earlier works, such as the harvest, the seasons and the times of day, the 1880s landscapes are different. Many, like “February,” depicting a stark winter landscape, evoke a nostalgic, melancholy mood, in contrast to the optimistic, celebratory interpretations of the 1850s and 1860s.
These introspective, more painterly works elicited positive responses from critics and patrons as a welcome departure from Richards’ earlier tightly focused seascapes and landscapes. Ferber calls “February” the artist’s “‘comeback’ painting, expressing traditional themes but in a modern voice.”
Richards’ Pennsylvania landscapes of the 1880s celebrate not only the wooded hills, winding streams and harvest fields of the Brandywine region, but constitute a means by which he worked out anxieties and cultural ideas associated with post-Civil War America and changing views about man and nature.
After selling the farm in 1890 and returning full time to Rhode Island, Richards “continued to enjoy a strong market demand for his dramatic coastal views, many gleaned from frequent trips abroad, and for large, panoramic paintings of breaking waves, which were in much demand during his later years,” says Ferber. Fittingly, he died at his easel in Newport, while working on yet another marine scene.
For most of the Twentieth Century Richards was remembered almost exclusively as a painter of the sea. The rediscovery in the 1970s of his landscapes and watercolors, and this splendid exhibition of his diverse “little gems,” have revived interest in and admiration for the achievements of one of America’s finest artists. Throughout his career, Richards wielded a truthful brush, painting with a passion born of long and loving observation. Not a bad legacy.
The 156-page, fully illustrated catalog with essays by Marley and Ferber is informative and insightful. Published by PAFA and produced by Marquand Books, it sells for $40, hardcover.
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