True to life
Artist William Trost Richards pursued the 'doctrine of truth to nature' on hikes, over rocks, by the sea
People seldom appear in William Trost Richards' paintings, drawings and sketches, and when they do they're tiny. Even boats with billowing sails are secondary. Nature is the star.
Waves smash and mountains tower. Rock formations and bold autumn leaves create drama in oil and watercolor, graphite sketches and wash drawings.
Behind all that sweep and scope, Richards (1833-1905) captured a level of detail particularly unusual in watercolor, said Carol M. Osborne, who curated the current exhibition of the American artist's work at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center. "Very nuanced and subtle," she said.
Nuanced — and sometimes minuscule. It's worth peering in close at the Cantor show to see the most minute texture of tree bark, the tiniest leaves in a blackberry bramble. Even Richards' dates penciled at the bottom of his sketches are meticulous: "June 18th 1859," for one. A visitor can imagine being along on Richards' hikes through the Adirondacks and Catskills, when he made sketches that he'd later use for his paintings.
Overall, the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 26, illustrates the Philadelphia-born artist's quest to accurately depict his beloved outdoors — for heaven's sake. Osborne writes in the show's catalogue that Richards was one of several American painters deeply influenced by the English art critic and essayist John Ruskin.
"The gospel Ruskin preached to painters demanded the accurate observation of nature in order to illustrate it as the handiwork of God. ... Ruskin's doctrine of truth to nature and the moral value of its study found ready acceptance in the New England climate of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau," Osborne wrote.
Osborne follows this with a quote from Ruskin: "The duty of the painter is the same as that of a preacher."
Indeed, a visitor to the Cantor senses this clarity of purpose, that Richards was focused on capturing the truth of the outdoors and bringing others inside it. It's easy to imagine perching on a boulder in the textured watercolor painting "Trees and Rocks by a Stream," finding shelter under an awning of green foliage.
Osborne is now retired from the Cantor, but was the museum's associate director and chief curator, working there for 15 years before retiring in 1993. During her tenure, the Richards collection was donated to Stanford by M.J. and A.E. van Loben Sels of Menlo Park in 1992. Dating and labeling the pieces, Osborne became familiar with the collection, and so she was a natural choice to come back for this exhibition.
The collection contains about 250 artworks; 75 were chosen for this exhibition.
Many of the watercolor scenes glow with what an exhibition card calls "the elusive phenomenon known as Luminism," a style linked with Osborne and other artists of the Hudson River School, mid-19th-century landscape painters who worked directly from nature. To achieve this "clarity, simplicity and spaciousness," Richards used a simple design, often on blue paper with a very horizontal format. The sky was left free of wash.
Works in the show that particularly demonstrate the phenomenon include a coastal scene in Cuttyhunk, Mass., and a watercolor-and-pencil image of a beach at low tide.
Much of the critical praise for Richards has centered on his marine views, which he turned to more frequently starting in the 1870s, when landscape painting was fading from fashion, Osborne wrote. His strokes often were more sweeping, his perspective broader.
On one wall, Richards' large oil canvas "Seascape" is notably luminous, offering a window into the pale-green sea. Two cool leather chairs have been placed in the gallery, allowing visitors to sink in and gaze.
Such serenity is not always present. The artist loved storms, and in fact bought a home at Newport to be closer to them, Osborne wrote. Much of the time, the ocean on his canvases is very much alive, as seen in his dynamic 1890s oil-on-panel painting "Surf Breaking on Rocks." It's a crashing, cresting being that is sometimes aggressive and always surprising.
In a letter to a friend, quoted in the exhibit catalogue, Richards wrote of the ocean: "I watch and watch it, try to disentangle its push and leap and recoil, make myself ready to catch the tricks of the big breakers and am always startled out of my self possession by the thunder and the rush, jump backward up the loose shingle of the beach, sure this time that I will be washed away; get soaked with spray, and am ashamed that I had missed getting the real drawing of such a splendid one, and this happens 20 times an hour and I have never got used to it."
What: "William Trost Richards: True to Nature," an exhibition of drawings, watercolors and sketches
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
When: Through Sept. 26. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8.
Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.