Published: August 9, 2011
The sea has been a source of fascination and the subject of inspired artwork for many years in the United States. From coast to coast, America’s shorelines have brought out the best in some of the nation’s most accomplished artists.
Two of America’s finest seascape painters, William Trost Richards (1833‱905) and Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837‱908), are the subject of an interesting exhibition at the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts through October 23. The focused show of 15 watercolors and drawings, primarily of scenes along the New England coast, is drawn from the permanent collection of the Springfield Art Museums. George Walter Vincent Smith, founder of the original art museum, was Bricher’s most loyal patron.
Bricher and Richards came to the fore during the period following the Civil War when the New England coast became a popular site for vacationers seeking to escape industrialization and urbanization. As art historian Roger B. Stein has observed, “The New England coast, like the White Mountains, &†was a place of escape from urban crowding, from the obvious costs of industrialization and an increasingly mechanized culture.” These vacationers, geared to healthy sites, sought “a renewal of energies as well as fulfillment of desires for the natural, the geological, the aesthetic and at least remnants of the spiritual.”
Both Bricher and Richards began as landscape painters, but eventually specialized in the seascapes for which they are known today. Drawing on their familiarity with the Atlantic coast, each created unpopulated marine scenes that appealed to a broad public, and are among the best seascapes in American art history.
The older of the two by four years, Richards was a hardworking and expert draftsman who created masterful landscape and maritime scenes in both oils and watercolors. Like Bricher, Richards’s early development was influenced by the Hudson River School and Luminism.
In the 1860s, Richards was among the most accomplished artists practicing the extremely detailed realism of American Pre-Raphaelites. Later his brushwork became looser, but he never relinquished his commitment to scrupulously accurate observation.
Richards was born in Philadelphia and remained a resident of the area for most of his life. While employed as a teenaged designer of ornamental metalwork, he studied with German-born painter Paul Weber.
Having decided to become an artist, in 1855 Richards toured the continent and trained briefly in Dusseldorf. He expressed delight at what he saw, but said no “Landscape Art&⁛was] equal [to] the pictures painted by [Frederic E.] Church&” Other artistic idols were Hudson River School luminaries Thomas Cole and Jasper Cropsey.
On several subsequent sojourns in England, Richards admired the atmospheric watercolors of J.M.W. Turner and produced vigorous depictions of rocks and surf along the coast, particularly in Cornwall.
Spurred by the writings of critic John Ruskin promoting truth to nature, Richards began to work on meticulously detailed yet vibrant renderings of woodland interiors and botanical subjects in the spirit of his British counterparts. Ruskin’s melding of art, nature and religion, which found a receptive audience in the United States, had no more devoted follower than Richards. Indeed, Richards’s closely observed and accurately recorded works won commendation from Ruskin.
Richards’s careful draftsmanship is documented in several pencil sketches of trees and rural houses in the exhibition. Several could well have preceded a composition of “Sunny Glade,” a meticulously drafted watercolor of a leafy forest clearing, bisected by a tranquil brook and surrounded by precise renderings of rocks and trees. It does not approach his vibrantly hued, meticulously depicted streams and woodlands around Philadelphia, but suggests a confident hand and an acute eye for composition.
After post-Civil War travels in Germany, Richards, realizing the limitations of claustrophobic Pre-Raphaelite compositions, turned away from imitative landscapes in favor of interpretive works and, specifically, to creating seascapes. Particularly intrigued by the movement of water †the “magnificent action of the sea,” as he put it †his luminous oil and watercolor depictions of the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to New England captured the effects of atmosphere and sea. “Wave,” a simple pencil sketch in the show, reflects the long study and careful preparations behind major oil and waterscapes.
Within a few years, large, highly finished exhibition watercolor seascapes became Richards’s specialty; he was recognized as a leading American practitioner in water-based paint. As Richards authority Linda S. Ferber has observed, “He contributed some of the finest American work in &⁛watercolor], moving from a style of great delicacy and transparency in intimate portfolio works to a more vigorous technique in opaque pigments in the later 1870s and 1880s, often working on a grand scale.”
An indefatigable worker, a quiet, refined gentleman, inconspicuous in attire and manner, Richards enjoyed steady sales of his work and was a prudent manager of his finances. His prosperity enabled him to own several residences in scenic locations.
While he recorded coastal views all along the Eastern seaboard, Richards was particularly partial to scenes of the vicinity around Newport, R.I., and nearby Narragansett Bay. In 1882, he built a summer home on Conanicut Island, near Newport. “Greycliff,” a shingle-style house, stood at the crest of a granite cliff commanding spectacular views of Narragansett Bay and open sea. Richards exulted in having “the finest subjects right in one’s ‘front yard.'” He also purchased a farm in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, where he painted expressive landscapes. In 1890, Richards made Newport his permanent residence.
Richards’s horizontal seascapes characteristically combined closely observed details with expansive sweeps of space. Many stand out for their tranquil luminosity.
In other coastal scenes he recorded the transient nature of ever-changing sea and sky, usually in contrast to obdurate, rocky shores. His ability to record rough weather is suggested by “Passing Storm,” a watercolor that underscores the power of a windswept, stormy sea.
Although Richards worked mostly near popular seashore resorts, he rarely sought to convey the carefree gaiety and colorful activities associated with vacationers, à la Maurice Prendergast. Instead, his watercolors and oils were usually devoid of human presence. Like Winslow Homer’s late coastal views, Richards’s intimate yet majestic depictions suggest the ceaseless battle between land and sea, the vastness of the universe and the relative insignificance of man in nature’s scheme of things.
In “Rocky Shore,” an impressive watercolor, he seemed to meditate on the power of the water and the resiliency of the rockbound coastline.
Toward the end of his career, Richards was dismissed by critics as an old-fashioned, establishment artist out of touch with current trends. Nevertheless, Richards enjoyed respectable patronage for his dramatic coastal views, notably large paintings of breaking waves that were staples of his late work. His death at Newport in 1905 †while working on a seascape †was widely reported in newspapers, where he was remembered almost exclusively as a “marine artist.”
By this time, his meticulous style of painting was considered hopelessly out of date and he was pretty much forgotten until restored to view by a 1973 exhibition organized by Ferber at the Brooklyn Museum. Since then, interest in his achievements has continued as part of widespread appreciation for American art of the past.
Today, William Trost Richards is admired as an artist whose vision never altered, a master of atmosphere and light, whose perception of nature was steeped in an idealism that divined a spiritual significance behind the appearance of reality.
Like Richards, Bricher is best known for Luminist scenes of deserted shorelines punctuated with rocky outcroppings and views of tranquil seas. Evoking idyllic seaside settings, his pictures generally ignored storms and other violent manifestations of marine weather. During his half-century career, Bricher made a comfortable living from his work, particularly seascapes, but was rarely praised by critics.
He represents the last development in the cult of nature that had earlier inspired Cole and the Hudson River School. Like Richards, his work shared affinities with and profited from the precedents of Fitz Henry Lane, Church, Martin Johnson Heade and William Haseltine, all of whom had an interest in the pictorial effects of light, air and atmosphere on sea scenes.
Born in Portsmouth, N.H., Bricher grew up in Newburyport, Mass., and by 1851 was working at a dry goods store in Boston. Largely self-taught, his early landscapes were in the manner of the Hudson River School, reflecting frequent visits to the Catskills and White Mountains. He was inspired to become a professional painter in 1858 after encountering artist Haseltine while sketching at Mount Desert, Maine.
In the early 1870s, Bricher began to concentrate on seascapes. From studios in Newburyport and later in New York, he traveled extensively, primarily sketching marine views along the Atlantic coast, which were turned into luminous oils and watercolors. He remained dedicated to capturing quiet, light-filled coastal scenes, and rendered forms with a precision that reflected his adherence to the Luminist aesthetic.
Bricher was especially successful in capturing the translucent appearance of the constantly moving sea, and in conveying atmospheric perspectives. His colors, predominately pale blues and greens with touches of intense yellows, harmoniously blended to convey the feel of bright, sunny days.
During a visit to Maine’s rugged Monhegan Island, famed for its sheer cliffs and crashing waves, he painted “Beneath White-Head,” a dramatic, oft-depicted landmark of the island. In a rare picture of an angry sea, this Bricher landscape captured the violent clash of waves and rocks in the context of a distant sailing vessel and omnipresent flying seagulls. Several other Bricher gouache vignettes show sailing vessels amid roiling water and solid rocks, but they tend to be the exception to the artist’s principal focus on serene seascapes.
More typical is a precisely rendered pen and ink sketch, “In a Tide Harbor,” that carefully depicts a vessel docked in a tranquil harbor. “Boats on a Shore,” an understated watercolor, evokes a characteristic scene of beached working boats.
A standout in the show is “Morning, Sandy Cove, Cohasset,” a quintessential Bricher watercolor in which calm, luminescent waves lap against rocks with a beached dory in the foreground and a majestic sailboat on the horizon.
In the 1880s, Bricher began to spend summers in Southampton on New York’s Long Island, his wife’s home, where he created expansive views of the shores, inlets and the village.
A visit to Massachusetts in the early 1890s led to a fine Tonalist oil, “Evening at Low Tide, Manomet,” showing massive boulders on a deserted beach silhouetted against placid water off which a sunset glow is reflected. Bricher’s penchant for tranquility is palpable in this canvas, which hangs elsewhere in the museum.
In the last decades of his career, Bricher experienced considerable commercial success. In 1892, for example, he sold nearly 80 watercolors and four oils. A display of his works at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago the next year further advanced his reputation.
Overtaken by Impressionism and other styles since his death, Bricher was almost forgotten by art historians and collectors until late in the Twentieth Century. Gradually, his achievements regained recognition.
His marinescapes have been praised both for their attention to detail and commitment to depicting the serenity of nature. While he rendered waves, cliffs and sandy beaches with near scientific precision, the combination of these elements, along with dramatic sunsets and luminous highlights, add up to an overall effect of great sublimity.
Bricher is now recognized as one of the finest marine artists of the late Nineteenth Century, his prolific output coveted by museums and private collectors. He is a fitting companion to Richards in this small, but rewarding exhibition.
The D’Amour Museum is on the Quadrangle at 21 Edwards Street. For information, 413-263-6800 or www.springfieldmuseums.org .
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