DRAMATIC AND DETAILED Richards’s Guernsey Cliffs, Channel Islands.
Call it poor timing. The 19th-century seascape painter William Trost Richards is one of the granddaddies of Rhode Island art, but in the wide world of art he remains obscure.
Like many prominent 19th-century American painters, after his death in 1905 his career became overshadowed by Impressionism and Cubism and all the increasingly abstract -isms of Modernism. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art deaccessioned most of its Richards paintings in 1929 (they've since rebuilt their collection). And as late as 1954, New York's National Academy of Design was giving away his drawings and paintings.
When major American curators revived interest in 19th-century American painting in the 1960s, Richards often remained a footnote — a late arrival to Hudson River School landscape painting (he was a generation younger than its founders) but still hewing to its methods, as contemporaries likeWinslow Homer and Thomas Eakins carved out a sinewy post-Civil War American realism. In other words, he doesn't fit nicely into the standard historical narrative.
"From Pennsylvania to Paradise: William Trost Richards, Harrison Morris and the Art Association of Newport" at the Newport Art Museum (76 Bellevue Ave, through September 9) is an opportunity for reappraisal. The exhibit is part of the museum's project to reexamine its own and the area's art history as the institution marks the centenary of its founding in 1912.
Born in Philadelphia in 1833, Richards lived most of his life in Pennsylvania. He first gained attention in 1950s and '60s for landscapes initially inspired by the Hudson River School painters' vast, dramatic American landscapes and later by the British Pre-Raphaelite painters' obsession with faithfully, maybe even scientifically, recording every detail of nature. For a time, Richards was part of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, a New York Pre-Raphaelite group. But by the 1870s, he had arrived at a blending of the two styles — dramatic and detailed depictions — and turned to primarily painting coasts and seas, especially the shores of Rhode Island after he began summering in Newport and environs in 1874. (The "Paradise" of the show's title refers to Middletown's Paradise Valley coast.)
THE DIRECTOR Eakins’s portrait of Harrison S. Morris.
Curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell includes representative samples of his seascapes — including Off the South Shore, his 1896 oil painting of a foggy, glowing green sea, and a 1899 painting of waves pounding a sandy beach at the foot of craggy Guernsey Cliffs, Britain's Channel Islands. They're quality paintings, but dry, photographic, crystalline.
The surprise comes via 110 postcard-sized watercolors that Richards sent in the 1870s and '80s to his friend and patron, George Whitney, a Philadelphia industrialist and art collector. They could be snapshots from Richards's travels — waves crashing against the rocky English coast, the sun setting between the cliffs of a winding Cornwall bay, a Newport marsh and pond, stormy skies, the streets of London, Stonehenge, bridges, cemeteries, the (now gone) Washington Elm on Cambridge Common in Massachusetts where (disputed) legend has it that George Washington first took command of the American army.