Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

William Trost Richards

Recruiting Station, Bethlehem, 1862, William Trost Richards
William Trost Richards
Like many artists, I've often railed against labels. Yet, I could hardly write about art, and more importantly, the artists who create it, without the benefit of such body tags. Having said that, I also recognize that all too often they are misleading, inadequate, inaccurate, and sometimes just flat-out wrong. As for myself, for instance, I could probably be labeled a Realist Portrait artist. Yet my work, taken as a whole, is usually not totally realistic. And though I've painted several portraits (and drawn far more), numerically, they do not make up the main body of my work. I'm far too eclectic for that. Speaking of "eclectic," that would be a much better label if, indeed, I must have one. A better example of the injustice done to an artist by art history's love of labels would be the American landscape painter William Trost Richards. See, that's three labels right there, though they're so broad as to be relatively harmless. However Richards is often lumped in with the Hudson River School and the American arm of the British Pre-Raphaelite movement, both of which are very much at odds with the real nature of the man's work. If any meaningful label must be attached to him, it might be said that he was a "Luminist."
Presidential Range and Lower Ammonoosuc Falls from Fabyan, William Trost Richards
The Tempest, William Trost Richards
First of all, Richards was born too late (1833) to be considered a Hudson River School artist, unless he was painting while still in diapers. Moreover, he was diametrically opposed to the romantic notions of the savage, yet virginal, New England frontier this group embraced. Richards was highly acclaimed for his oils and watercolors of the White Mountain area of the Adirondacks, and quite rightly so; but I could find not one single painting of the Hudson River among his works. As for the claim that Richards was an American Pre-Raphaelite, though he seems to have admired the work of his British cousins, his own work reflects only a fairly superficial influence. Yes, some of his landscapes have a surprisingly high degree of detailed, and on a few occasions he delved into the Pre-Raphaelite love for Medieval content, such as his The Tempest (left). But such rare dalliances in a minor, totally foreign, art movement's, style and content, do not make the man a Pre-Raphaelite.

Race the Sea, My Sons , 1876, William Trost Richards.
If Richards didn't get drenched, his boys probably did.
Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert Island,
Maine, 1866, William Trost Richards
Assuming Richards must have some kind of label, in looking at his work as a whole, what does that make him? I proposed he should be considered a Luminist. Even at that, though the chronology involving his career fits the label, Richards' was far too fond of the dramatic, pounding, New England surf breaking over massive shoreline boulders to really fit this label either. Yes, like the Luminists, he was fascinated (even obsessed) with the effects of various types of natural light on the water. But the Luminists paintings would appear to have been done by a bunch of "pansies," judging from their mirror-smooth water and graceful sailing ships usually not sailing at all, but lying calmly at anchor. Richards, on the other hand, one might guess, probably came home at night drenched in the salty ocean spray of his macho seashore depictions. Take a look at Race the Sea, My Sons (above) from 1876, to see what I mean. His Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert Island, Maine (above, right) is even more powerful with its emphasis on the pounding surf lit by the blaze of the early morning sun.

Graycliff, the Artist's Home, Newport, Rhode Island, 1882, William Trost Richards
Snow Covered Trees, William Trost Richards
Despite having proposed the label, Luminist, myself, it would appear that it hardly fits Richards any better than the other two mentioned before. He was not an in plein air painter (that sort of thing was not yet in vogue in America at the time); and besides that, his fascination with dramatic natural light would preclude such a mode. The earth has this worrisome habit of rotating in relation to the sun. Making his home on the rugged shores of Newport, Rhode Island (above), that's not to say that Richards didn't begin his paintings on location, but like nearly all landscape painters before the Impressionists, he would finish them in his studio. Artists back then had to have a knack for remembering details of light and color. Richards' Snow Covered Trees (right) would hardly have lent themselves to no more than a few freezing minutes painting out-of-doors.

Stonehenge,1882, William Trost Richards
Atlantic City, William Trost Richards
Speaking of light and color, Richards' paintings are all over the place in that regard. At times, his color is so bright and vivid as to seem almost garish. His Atlantic City (left), for example. (Where's the city?) At other times, as seen in his Stonehenge, (above) dating from a year-long foray to Europe in 1882, is so colorless as to seem almost bland, were it not for the famous subject matter. Of course, the key to this wide variation is the fact that Richards was such a master of all manifestations of light, and thus color, that his painted explorations of both were totally dependent on what he saw and, as I said before, remembered once he got back to his studio. His Recruiting Station, Bethlehem, (top), from the early Civil War years, is dramatic for its historic details and significance, rather than the artist's use of color. The staging of several small areas of interest and the overall composition are masterful.

Forest Scene, 1875, William Trost Richards
If William Trost Richards loved the powerful forces of the sea, it would be a toss-up between that content in his work and the quiet solitude of the deeply wooded forest (above) as to which fascinated him more. The lighting and color are every bit as dramatic as that seen in his seascapes, yet the effect on the senses is calming, reassuring, and restful. One has to wonder if the artist might not have been tempted to spend the entire day painting in such a glorious environment, despite the ever-changing light. Instead, as if there weren't enough mountains in the northeastern United States, on his European jaunt, Richards traveled to far off Romsdal Fjord, Norway (below), in search of real lofty heights. The White Mountains or even Mount Washington, had nothing to compare to this.

William Trost Richards died at his beloved Rhode Island home in 1905 at the age of seventy-two.

Romsdal Fjord, Norway, William Trost Richards


No comments:

Post a Comment