William Trost Richards

William Trost Richards, Tintagel, 1881, National Academy Museum, New York City

William Trost Richards: Visions of Land and Sea,” at the National Academy Museum in New York City, draws on a 1954 bequest by the artist’s daughter, Anna Richards Brewster. Most of the sixty works on view, many recently conserved, have not been previously exhibited. Richards (1833–1905), an accomplished craftsman, moved gracefully across a variety of styles during his career, always retaining a strong personal signature. His Coastal Scene (1862), oil on cardboard, shows Richards in the orbit of the Hudson River School painters, and his admiration for Frederic Church is evident in the sky. The undersides of the striated clouds are lit by the molten hemisphere of the setting sun, which shimmers across the water to the beach. But Richards’s palette is more subdued and his composition less rhetorical than Church’s. Only some straggling branches of low beach trees, deep in shadow, break the dead-flat horizon. Richards seem to find in the subdued topography a setting appropriate to an introspective encounter with nature. Coastal Scene came to the National Academy in 1865, a bequest from the painter and collector James A. Suydam. As one of the oldest museums in the country, founded in 1825 by Samuel F.B. Morse, Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, the Academy has a special place in American art history.

The Richards show continues this legacy. Among the works in the Brewster bequest are many graphite drawings of plants that Richards executed in the late 1850s and 1860s, in his American Pre-Raphaelite phase. Under the influence of John Ruskin, Richards turned his eyes to the ground for close-up studies of plant life. The naturalist impulse is balanced, in Day Lilies by a Wooden Fence, dated June 26, 1862, by energetic drawing that conveys the breeze-stirred movement of grasses and by bold contrasts between delicate lines and heavy shadows.

Many of the works in the exhibition are in watercolor, a medium Richards found particularly well suited for coastal and marine scenes. One of his most dramatic vistas is from the rugged coast of Cornwall. Tintagel (1881) looks down, over steep meadows, to the ruins of Tintagel Castle, associated with Arthurian legends, especially with the doomed love affair of Tristan and Isolde. Cornwall would continue to inspire storytellers well into the twentieth century, notably in Daphne Du Maurier’s novels Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. Richards captures the romance of the place but without direct mythic or literary allusions. Tiny seabirds fly beneath him, the ruins become one with the rocky cliffs, and sea and sky reflect each other’s colors on the placid horizon, so different from the turbulent waves at the foot of the rocks. Richards explores another Romantic trope in Moonlit Landscape (c. 1870), an exquisite watercolor with gouache on blue-grey wove paper. The artist uses the twilight tonality of the paper to good effect in this misty scene, reminiscent of the haunted landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. The shadowy screen of spindly trees has a phantasmal quality. The strongest physical presence is the full moon, glowing white and reflected brightly in the patches of water in the marshy foreground.

The marine paintings remain his most recognizable, and the exhibition includes examples exploring the sea’s moods, both turbulent—Gray Cliff, Conanicut (Conanicut Shore with Breaking Wave), an oil (c. 1885–1905)—and serene, Conanicut Island (oil, c. 1885–91). Richards’s focus on gradations of light and complex interchanges of color between sea and sky link him to what we now commonly call the Luminist movement. In a number of watercolors, distant boats along the horizon suggest a human presence, although the translucent sails and tacking masts make them seem as much a part of the natural milieu as seabirds. In Marine Yachts (c. 1870), the tiny sails are nearly swallowed by the looming grey clouds. In Yachts off Newport (1877), the pleasure craft are a ghostly armada, tilting in the brisk winds under luminous banks of clouds. Here and in the elemental Seascape (1875), Richards is particularly adept at capturing the chop of the waves. Seascape is a fine study in the weight and energy of the sea, in the glassy color of the surge and the froth of the breakers as they strike the rocks. Richards grasps both the sea’s intimations of infinity and its immediate, very physical changeability. The exhibition is on view May 23–September 8, 2013, at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10128. Telephone (212) 369-4880.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 3