Melding the Lyrical and Pragmatic

Article excerpt

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 accolades 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, "Modern 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. …