A Natural Truth, William Trost Richards
"When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do." William Blake (1757 – 1827)
A Rocky Coast. Watercolor
What happens when you have a Hudson River School artist, with a purely emotional response to nature, and then expose them to the teachings of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, whose focus was the close study and examination of nature, in order to create a more faithful rendition? You get William Trost Richards, an artist who created landscapes and marinescapes that intentionally evoked emotion and passion while remaining true to nature. In viewing his works, one is at first struck by how he treated his subject with fidelity and care and with meticulous attention to detail. At the same time, there is a spaciousness in his scenes, a poetic grandeur that evokes wonder beyond the merely technical.
There is also a sense in his work of the spiritual, a contemplative aspect combined with moral values that reflect the time's philosophy. It was the age of Transcendentalism, a philosophy that developed in the late 1820s, and was championed by such thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Adherents felt that the divine permeates nature; that it pervades the material world and humanity and can be understood through the careful study of nature. With this belief that God is the essence of nature, Transcendentalists had an appreciation of nature that was both aesthetic and a way to uncover divine truth hidden in the shadows.
From Paradise to Purgatory. Watercolor
“In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
William Trost Richards was born in Philadelphia on November 14, 1832, the son of a tailor originally from Wales who emigrated to the United States. Early on, Richards had a fascination for the arts, and he started drawing at an early age. A tale recounted by a boyhood friend tells of their travels to Frankford Creek: "I to fish and he with sketching material." (from "Never at Fault" Linda Ferber) While in Philadelphia, in 1850, he studied painting with the German landscape artist Paul Weber, who also taught William Stanley Haseltine and Edward Moran.
Through the teachings of Weber, Richards was introduced to landscape painting and the works of the Hudson River School artists. He achieved artistic maturity in his thirties when in 1862 he was elected as an honorary member of the National Academy of Design, and then in 1871 was elected as an Academician. It was in Philadelphia in 1858 that Williams was introduced through exhibitions at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts to the Pre-Raphaelites and the teachings of John Ruskin.
The Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites started in England in 1848 as a reaction to the Royal Academy of Arts; the Brotherhood felt that the Academy's Classical training and Renaissance artists' primacy, particularly Raphael, had been a degenerating influence of academic training. As the name implies, they adopted a style they felt preceded Raphael to seek an expression that was rich in detail with vivid colors and more complex compositions. The Pre-Raphaelites, influenced by John Ruskin, an English art critic who was well known for his book Modern Paint-ers, stated that the artist's aim should be a 'Truth to Nature.'
Study of a Leaf. Graphite
This sentiment was carried over to the United States as the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art. The movement was inspired to develop a reform in the arts that emphasized fidelity and highly detailed, carefully rendered depictions of nature. Richards was an active member of this group and his many sketchbooks show Ruskin's influence on his development and style. Several of his drawings reveal a close examination of nature; he was studying natural structure to discover and understand the underlying truth that nature was hiding. A sketch of a leaf, for example, shows how patiently he would study shape and form, trying to understand its construction, skills that later would help to inform and guide him in his painting (fig. 1).
Although Richards worked in a variety of mediums, a sizable portion of his paintings were done in watercolors, one area in which he separated himself from John Ruskin. Ruskin was a traditional watercolorist and worked in transparent washes and details. By contrast, the technique favored by William Trost Richards mixed transparent washes with opaque colors. This technique is similar to how he used his oils, and it was quite successful with his marinescapes. The water would be painted in transparent pigments, and then he would build up areas of opaque color that would be either the reflections off the water or places that would be facing the light source.
This contrast between the opaque lights and the transparent darks mirrors how the ocean and the waves behave. It creates a visual that is both believable but also abstract and provided a way for Richards to be expressive. With this technique, Richards created watercolor paintings that were quite large using carpet paper, a dark, fibrous, neutral-toned material used in the 19th century to line carpets. By using a neutral ground, Richards was able to effectively apply wash-es for the darker, richer tones, and develop his lighter tones with the opaque colors.
Detail of A Rocky Coast, Watercolor
A notable example of Richards’ technique is the painting A Rocky Coast, painted in 1877 and currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 2). A large watercolor at 28 1/8 x 36 ¼ inches, it is a powerful rendition of waves breaking on rocks in Newport, Rhode Island. Here, Richards uses various painting methods to create a vision that is an accurate rendition of nature, but one which invokes the scene's underlying drama and emotion. Washes of transparent watercolor are laid down broadly, and then the details are built up with both transparent and opaque colors. The opaque colors also vary in application from semi-transparent washes and dry brush up to fully being opaque in areas such as the surf and the clouds. Richards also takes advantage of the paper's neutral tone and leaves some areas unpainted; the technique is visible in the upper left corner (fig. 3). A large portion of the paper is untouched and is used to depict the gray sky. Richards then overlays the white gouache in semi-opaque with an almost dry brush, creating a sense of drama by revealing the paper's tone and texture which vary, even with the particles of the pulp popping up here and there.
Purgatory Cliff. Watercolor
A smaller painting, 13 x 10 inches, but dramatically just as large as A Rocky Coast, is a watercolor and gouache on light tan wove paper painting, titled Purgatory Cliff, an area around New-port, Rhode Island (fig. 4). The picture was completed in 1876 and is a dynamic view of both the waves' mighty crash and the calm, gentle sailboats in the distance. The depiction of the waves crashing on the rocks in the foreground is an articulate use of the watercolor medium. The contrast between the transparency and the opaque colors creates a highly energized scene; one can feel the liquid wave's power hammering the solid rock wall (fig. 5). The title of the painting is telling, given the thinking of the period's philosophical ideals. Purgatory is where the repentant dead's souls undergo temporary punishment to wash away their worldly sins. Within the turmoil of sea and rocks, unknown sinners are purified, hopeful of the promise of divine reward by the calm seas in the background.
Detail of Purgatory Cliff. Watercolor
Another painting, created around the same time and location in Rhode Island, is From Paradise to Purgatory, 10 x 14 3/8; it also has a grandeur that surpasses its size (fig.6). This watercolor reflects the Pre-Raphaelites and John Ruskin's adage of Truth to Nature. It is an accurate representation of a chasm that shows a careful observation of nature, Ruskin said that the way to moral truth was the study of nature in penetrating detail. As the title implies, it is a conscientious study of the divinity inherent in nature, an accurate observation to illustrate God's handiwork, and a job in alignment with the period's Transcendental movement. William Blake once said, "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way." To William Trost Richards, that tree meant more than just being a tree; it was a symbol and a guide to revealing the truth that could only be found in nature.
Through the artwork of William Trost Richards, the viewer can understand that knowledge about themselves goes beyond the world around them and can be revealed through the study of nature. His paintings have a beauty and grandeur that displays both the power and the calm of the natural world. In viewing the works, one learns how to read the symbols of nature and can start to understand the inner workings of the world around them. Jon Wilson, the founder, and editor of Wooden Boats magazine said that "the Truth is the integrity we sense beneath the beauty." A painting such as A Rocky Coast gives us this beauty -- on first viewing, one is struck by the allure of the ocean crashing upon the rocks -- but with patient examination, one realizes that it is a search, a search for what lies underneath the water, rocks, and sky. Richards is searching for the heart and, in doing so, treats the sea with fidelity and poetry. To quote Rich-ards, "Ruskin says that he only is great who had reached the heart of a thing, and thus is the innermost holy place."