Melding the Lyrical and Pragmatic
IN the 19th century, many poets entertained a wonderfully reverential sense of awe and inspiration when looking upon the natural world. In particular, Americans like William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were openly persuaded that God's hand was to be found in nature.
These poets had counterparts in a host of landscape artists, one of whom was William Trost Richards (1833-1905), whose paintings are imbued with a conviction that what he saw was of divine creation, its perfection from God. It was a religious era, when people were not embarrassed to make their faith explicit and most artists were devoted to beauty and nature in an unaffected way.
The American painters were especially exhilarated, because the country was being opened, offering marvelous, panoramic views of the West. Geological and botanical specimens previously unknown were being discovered. The color and the light of distant regions startled artists. This was at a time when interest in watercolor was rising, and painters were striving to master its mysteries, usually looking at J. M. W. Turner as the genius in the field.
The American artists, trained partly at home and partly in Europe, moved about sketching in the open spaces, executing their paintings later in their studios. Most of them belonged to the Hudson River School, and their names are generally familiar to us - Alfred Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, William Merritt Chase, John Frederick Kensett. Others, like Richards, though much admired in their own time, are today half-forgotten. Their work is memorable, often exquisite, and one hopes they will again receive the ac colades they deserve.
William Trost Richards was born in Philadelphia. His great gift for drawing was early apparent, and although his education began in a cultivated manner, it was cut short by the sudden death of his father when the boy was hardly in his teens. However, the essential foundations of his education had been well laid, and his love of literature remained one of his passions and proved to be an important influence in his work. He was a romantic, yet in his way thoroughly realistic.
As a young man, Richards began to earn money by designing ornamental metalwork. In time outside of work, he took art lessons from Paul Weber, a German, who was an excellent teacher, insisting that his pupils draw with careful exactitude. Drawing was something Richards could do well; in later years he would say that if you wanted to paint, you must learn to draw. A fellow student was William Stanley Haseltine, a man who also would leave his mark as an artist.
In these years, Richards joined a group of essayists, who thought that prose and painting, literature and art, were akin in their reverence toward nature. In this vein, the young Richards wrote that we "need to ponder upon 'ancient, noble, and poetic things.' "
Previous to this period, such high goals had strongly influenced historical painters; now these aspirations were enlivening landscape painters. These Americans were ardent readers of John Ruskin, and devoted to "Ruskinism," ideas discussed in an organization called the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art. This group was formed in New York in 1863, and included Richards on its membership rolls. They had a journal, the New Path, which emphasized a statement from Ruskin's five-volume series, "Mo dern Painters": The artist's "duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God." In short, truth in art meant an exact and faithful representation of nature.
Richards seems to have found such ideas wholly compatible, and was in no need of conversion. Aside from his landscapes, we can see his faithful observance of these tenets in his meticulous replicas of stones and plants, the latter inspired by Agassiz's work. Ruskin preached that the artist is like a telescope, and the better and clearer the lens, the better the results. He believed that the viewer should look through the artist's eyes, but not at him. It followed that such goals demanded perfect draftsma nship - for instance, brushstrokes should be concealed. In Richards' case, this was a fruitful doctrine - his great numbers of notebooks filled with studies and the minute wooden panels on which he painted attest to the great artistry of everything he did.
Frugal and careful in his lifestyle, the young man husbanded his meager resources and went to Europe to study when he was still very young, going to France, Italy, Germany, and England. Afterward, he would make many more such journeys, taking his family with him, and spending months, even years, abroad.
He was successful, too, in finding buyers and exhibiting. His paintings were hung in the Royal Academy, the Grosvenor and the Dudley Galleries in London, and in the Salon in Paris. He was recognized in the United States and made an honorary member of the National Academy of Design, making a comfortable living for himself. He was able to live in Newport, R.I., which was pictorially congenial to him. Whereas the earlier part of his life was mainly devoted to landscapes, later his main interest became the d epiction of the sea, to the extent that he is today known as a marine painter.
This change came about in 1867 when the Richards family was returning to America, and the vessel on which they were traveling ran into great storms. The ship lost a paddle wheel, and was so disabled that it could not come to land; the captain put her out to sea again, and altogether the voyage took 17 days. This near-disaster was a fortunate episode for the artist, as it was then that he lost his heart to the beauty and wonder of the sea. The play of light above water and the ever-changing action of the waves enchanted him. He also found a friend on the journey: S. A. Avery, an important art dealer, with whom he could afterward work to their mutual advantage.
This was long before the age of the air, when the oceans still captivated the world's imagination. Literature had embraced this great mysterious theme since antiquity, and many people read of long voyages, shipwrecks, and sea battles. They were familiar with the concepts of its extraordinary features - its storms and calms, the menace it held, and the dramatic beauty it revealed.
In America, people were reading "Two Years Before The Mast," and all over the English-speaking world, Joseph Conrad was a favorite author. Richard's pictures of the ocean fitted into this universal interest, though he himself was a painter of coastal waters, often in turmoil, foaming and dashing against cliffs. He recognized the universal theme of man's struggle against the sea, and found the light above it distinctive - creating, defining, arousing.
Richards worked with the sea as he had worked with landscapes, slowly and carefully. He believed he could not paint such scenes on first impressions, that sometimes he had to watch a wave breaking 20 times to find its contours. He wanted to show water moving, and the space and light that the movement of the waves created. His hope was to create work that was at once "lyrical and pragmatic."
By this time, he was alert to what other painters were doing in the world of art - Winslow Homer, James Whistler, and hosts of others, who saw and painted very differently. Once he was taken aback when he viewed one of his gouaches of Newport hanging in the Grosvenor Gallery between two Whistler Harmonies (one in blue and green, the other in blue and gold), and remarked that his picture was of course, beside these, entirely realistic. This was his forte, and it remains beautiful, inspiring, and satisfyin g.