William Trost Richards is often celebrated as one of the greatest American marine painters of the nineteenth century. He was that, and from the mid 1860s until the end of his career he produced a great number of superb paintings of both calm ocean and coastal views as well as tremendously dramatic paintings of wild sea activity vis-à-vis rugged coastal rocky landscapes. Richards’s artistic oeuvre however, encompassed a far wider range of landscape imagery. Early in his career, working in the manner of the Hudson River school, he painted panoramas of American scenery. Richards then gained renown for his intricate forest landscapes, and turning to watercolor painting in the late 1860s, attendant with his growing interest in images of the shore, he became one of the nation’s finest watercolor painters of the second half of the nineteenth century.
A native of Philadelphia, in 1850 Richards began studying with the German immigrant landscapist, Paul Weber, one of, if not the finest landscape painter active in that city on his arrival in 1848; landscapes and its allied themes of seascapes and nature studies became the subject of Richards extensive artistic production. Weber provided crucial instruction for an important group of young future Philadelphia landscape specialists, not only Richards, but William Stanley Haseltine, Alexander Lawrie, and Edward Moran, among others. Richards earliest known painting dates from 1850; he began exhibiting his art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1852. At this time, Richards had developed tremendous admiration for the work of Frederic Edwin Church, then just beginning to rise to the summit of American landscape painting. Richards and Lawrie, formed a friendship which took them to Europe in 1855. They toured the Continent, painting in Italy and Switzerland; they shared a studio for a few months in Dusseldorf, Germany, then the leading European center for Americans studying abroad where Haseltine was also in residence, and their mutual teacher, Weber, may have been there as well. On his return, Richards settled in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and married Anna Matlock in 1856. He began painting Adirondack scenery but soon became aware of the writings of the English aesthetician, John Ruskin, and the art of the English Pre-Raphaelite School which Ruskin championed. For about a decade beginning in 1857, an American Pre-Raphaelite movement became a force in American art. Unlike the English artists of the movement, the Americans seldom engaged in figure painting, but practiced Ruskinian and Per-Raphaelite principles in their devotion to landscape and occasional still-life pictures. In addition, by the late 1850s, Americans had begun to recognize Frederic Church as the greatest practitioner of New World landscape, and Church’s adoption of some of the tenets advocated by Ruskin were emulated by a great number of other American landscape specialist, including Richards.
Ruskin’s aesthetic theories had been expounded in his book, "Modern Painters", published in five volumes over a series of years, 1843-1860. The aesthetic principles involved a complete devotion to Nature, rendered with the utmost fidelity, disregarding optical principles going back to the renaissance, as well as sophisticated glazing techniques, and any painterly effects. In a sense Pre-Raphaelite strategies only reinforced the devotion to Nature as a visual metaphor of God’s creativity which was a principle of the Hudson River School, and the superiority of exact draftsmanship and carefully rendered form over chromatic freedom and expressivity which were the hallmarks of Dusseldorf teaching.
In 1866, Richards traveled to England, and began to focus more on marine painting than upon landscapes. This became his major theme from then on, usually quiet, peaceful scenes, often of waves gently rolling up along the coast, though in the late 1870s he spent a good deal of time in Cornwall, England, and there painted stormy dramatic scenes of lashing, wind-swept waves beating upon he rocky coast, more diffuse and atmospheric than both his earlier paintings and the peaceful coastal paintings done on the shores of New England and New Jersey. Richards and his wife bought properties in and around Newport, Rhode Island in 1874, spending his summers there and settling at Jamestown on Conanicut Island; some of the artist’s finest watercolors were painted there.
Richards is, by far, the most renown of the artists involved in the American Pre-Raphaelite movement. His awareness Ruskin’s writings was demonstrated in his fascination with geology in his Adirondack mountain scenery even before he viewed the important exhibition of contemporary British art which was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in February of 1858; the English Per-Raphaelite contingent in this traveling exhibition—it was also seen in New York and Boston—was only a small fraction of the display but it easily garnered the greatest public and critical interest. Following Ruskin’s admonitions, Richards began in 1858 to paint out-of-doors seeking the greatest fidelity to nature. About that time, an American Pre-Raphaelite movement had begun through the efforts of Thomas Farrer, an English student of Ruskin’s , who came to the United States in 1857 and subsequently founded the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, which, in turn, attracted a number of younger painters to paint out-of-doors with extreme meticulousness. In 1863, Farrer nominated Richards to membership of the Association, and in turn, his work was favorably mentioned in "The New Path", the short-lived publication of The Association.
From 1858 through 1865, Richards painted a series of landscapes and nature studies, along with a considerable group of large landscape drawings, most depicting forest interiors with extreme fidelity. But in those Pre-Raphaelite works in which Richards included distance or a further background plane, there was often a disharmony with the literalness of his foreground subjects. Critics pointed this out and Richards appears to have been aware of the dilemma also, since his extreme Pre-Raphaelitism begins to disappear almost completely after 1865. He suggested as such in writing to George Whitney, his major patron, once in he reached Paris on his second trip to Europe late in 1866. But in July and August of 1866, Richards, with his wife and two daughters, visited Mount Desert Island, located in Frenchman’s Bay off the coast of Maine, popular both as a resort and a sketching ground for artists. Early landscapists such as Thomas Doughty in the 1830s and Thomas Cole in 1844 painted there. Steamboat service from Boston to Mount Desert began in the 1830s, and in 1855 the first summer hotel, the Agamont House, opened in Bar Harbor on the Island, affording visitors the comforts of a more pleasant stay and facilities for families. By 1850, large groups of painters were active there—in that year alone, both Fitz Henry Lane and Frederic Church were on Mount Desert as well as John F. Kensett and Benjamin Champney. Church visited Mount Desert almost every year between 1850 and 1856 and made several more trips later. On his first journey, he painted in the vicinity of the Otter Cliffs, producing a number of very finished oil sketches looking down upon the raging surf and headlands below while his "Otter Creek, Mount Desert" (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1852, where Richards almost surely would have seen it.
The Otter Cliffs at Mount Desert, located in the southeast of the island, offer one of the most spectacular sights on Mount Desert and indeed along the Maine cost. At 110 feet in height, it is one of the highest headlands north of Rio de Janeiro. The Cliffs, made of pink granite jut out drastically above the ocean, with the pounding surf and high waves below adding to the spectacle. In "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert Island, Maine" Richards has maintained the geological exactitude that derives not only from Ruskinian emphasis on specificity and detail, but the artist’s particular interest in geology, having written to a friend in 1854 of his admiration for Louis Agassiz, the Harvard natural scientist: “I almost envy your geological surveys with Prof. Agassiz. I have long been wishing to study in an Elementary Geology.” This concern for the exactitude of rock formations mirrors that specialty that had already become a hallmark of the paintings of William Stanley Haseltine, not coincidentally a fellow student of Paul Weber’s in the early 1850s. A number of years earlier, Haseltine had developed a similar approach to geological emphasis. While this brilliant concern with geology in Haseltine’s art is primarily associated with his paintings and drawings created at Narragansett, Rhode Island, and Nahant in Massachusetts, it had been born earlier in the paintings deriving from his first visit to Mount Desert in 1859, with that artist exhibiting the results of this summer sketching trip in oil paintings shown in 1860 and 1862.
Richards almost surely would have been aware of Haseltine’s work, and very possibly even his drawings of Otter Cliff. But here, in his paintings of "The Otter Cliffs", instead of following Haseltine’s preference for the elongated horizontal format which characterizes almost all of Haseltine’s coastal pictures and Richards’s as well, he has chosen a long vertical shape in which the drama of the scale of the Otter Cliffs, sharply faceted, with no overgrowth, and seen from down below, hark back to the concept of the sublime in art—art which embodies drama and danger. The ocean waters below are a pounding surf, beating upon and even swelling up on the rocky shore, a contrast of vigorous motion against the impenetrable stone, foreshadowing in a sense, however stylistically antithetical, the late work of Winslow Homer painted Prout’s Neck ,Maine at the end of the century. Light illuminates this natural drama, but breaks through a dark cloud formation which embodies its own spectacle of heavy clouds opening up for a distant blue sky. No longer, therefore, is there any disjuncture between foreground and distance. Richards’s mastery of perspective leads the viewer down the Otter Cliff rocks far into the distance and out to sea successfully without diminished clarity, qualities which are associated with the Luminist movement within the Hudson River School in the art of painters such as John F. Kensett and Fitz Henry Lane.
Numerous drawings by Richards are known from his summer on Mount Desert, and these, too, feature his concern for geological accuracy. Only one other oil has come to light, a "Mount Desert, Maine", in a private collection, considerably smaller—13 ¾”x24”—and in the more usual horizontal format. While this work, too, features a powerful rock format plunging down to the sea at the left, and active waves brushing up against the rocks, it is a more traditional format of layered spatial planes, reaching out to a distant island in the right rear, with a background of white clouds and a blue sky over them. The rich drama of Richards’ "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert Island, Maine" was seldom sought or achieved by artists of his generation, and actually revived in what was an earlier approach, the romanticism found in the Mount Desert landscapes of Thomas Doughty and Thomas Cole—one thinks especially of Cole’s "Frenchman’s Bay, Mt. Desert Island, Maine", of 1845 (Albany Institute of History and Art). But this is a much smaller painting. So is the small foot-high oil by Richards’ contemporary, Sanford Gifford of "Otter Cliffs (Rocks at Porcupine Island, near Mt. Desert"; Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine), which would have been painted in the summer of 1864, since Gifford was on Mount Desert for three weeks in late July and early August of that year. The vertical composition here precedes Richards’ monumental canvas, but it is more of a study and while powerful, its miniaturization cannot convey the majesty of Richard’s achievement.
Richards had also been preceded in visiting Mount Desert by several other artists who were involved with Ruskinian principles, including John Henry Hill, there in 1856, and Aaron Shattuck, on Mount Desert two years later. But in this masterwork, "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert, Maine", Richards went beyond the detailed recording of natural phenomena. It would appear almost to combine the influence of Ruskin’s other seemingly incompatible favorite, the works of James W. Turner, not only in the drama and sublimity of the scene, but even in the composition format, a circular pattern of arching clouds above, sweeping though the cliffs, with light illumining a curving foreground which encompasses the pounding waters. This is a singular achievement for Richards at this time, in American art, most reminiscent of the spectacular landscapes of the much admired Frederic Church. Richards had earlier visited the New Jersey and Nantucket shores, recording coastal scene, and this theme would become the hallmark of his later work. But here, Richards uniquely introduces a dramatic emphasis upon the meeting of wild seas and high cliffs that would only reappear in his work in England in the late 1870s and early 1880s. But these later pictures, with their broader brushwork and greater atmospheric concerns, lessen the sense of immediacy, distancing the viewer from Nature’s drama which the artist achieved in "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert, Maine".
The early history of "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert, Maine" is not known, at least for now. In February of 1867, Richards exhibited a painting of "Mount Desert Island" at Philadelphia’s Artists’ Fund Society. Early that September of 1867, he showed a painting of "Mount Desert" with the Rhode Island Society for Domestic Industry. In the late spring of 1868, Richards offered a painting of "Mount Desert Island" for sale at the forty-fifth annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. That same year he exhibited "The Coast of Maine" in Philadelphia at the Artists’ Fund Society. That last picture, of course, might not specifically represent the landscape of Mount Desert, and it would seem unlikely that it would be the same picture he showed with the Artists’ Fund Society the year before. Otherwise, the works shown in these four shows might have been either Richards’ smaller "Mount Desert Island" or "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert, Maine" or a yet unlocated third view painted of Mount Desert scenery. Certainly the first three works shown above are identified with the title of the smaller of the two examples of Richards’ Mount Desert paintings known today, and without any descriptive reviews which have not, as yet, been located, one can only speculate as to their identity. Still, given the size, quality, and uniqueness of "The Otter Cliffs, Mount Desert, Maine" it would seem very unlikely that at least one if not more of the works shown in these displays was not this masterwork, unless, of course, it was acquired immediately by a perceptive buyer/collector and never again appeared on public view until now.
William H. Gerdts
Professor Emeritus of Art History
Graduate School of the City University of New York