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Friday, 25 January 2013 04:03

William Trost Richards: From Pennsylvania to Paradise

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
Paradise Valley, Middletown, Rhode Island, 1881
Watercolor, gouache on grey, oatmeal wove paper
24 x 38 inches
Newport Art Museum. Purchase made possible through the generosity of many donors, the descendants of the artist and the efforts of William and Alison Vareika (2002.003.001).

In this spectacular 1881 scene of Paradise Valley, there are traces of Richards’s earlier Pre-Raphaelite concern with closely observed natural details. Richards joined with others in the American Watercolor Society to elevate the status of watercolors in the United States. He began to produce works in watercolor on a scale with oil paintings, with a heavy gouache to lend an effect of oil, often, as here, working on dark, heavy fibrous paper, the kind used to line carpets, which approximated the textural qualities of canvas.


Of the many fine artists who were drawn to Rhode Island’s Newport and Narragansett Bay region during the 1800s, perhaps no other has better captured the mercurial sea or “the miracle of color under a curving wave,”2 than William Trost Richards (1833–1905). Richards spent decades painting in and around Newport, and in a scenic area in nearby Middletown known as “Paradise.” His oil and watercolor seascapes created there and along the New Jersey and British coasts are considered among the finest ever produced. Richards embraced first the tenets of the Hudson River School, later developing a Pre-Raphaelite concern for closely observed natural details. As a mature artist, he combined this truth to nature with an interest in light and atmosphere, attributes that permeate the works he created in the Newport area in the 1890s.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
Narrow River Rocks, Narragansett Bay, R.I., 1881 Watercolor and Chinese white on paper
3¼ x 5 inches
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Promised Gift of Dorrance H. Hamilton in memory of Samuel M. V. Hamilton, (64.5.2008).

Born in Philadelphia in 1833, Richards was the son of a Welsh tailor. When his father died prematurely, Richards left high school and earned a living designing gaslight fixtures. In his free time he studied painting with German-born landscape artist Paul Weber (1823–1916). In 1852 Richards’s work was exhibited for the first time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Two years later he abandoned his secure employment to devote himself to painting full-time. Throughout the 1850s, he sketched in rural Pennsylvania and along the Hudson River and in the Catskills and Adirondacks. With the support of patrons, he traveled to Paris, Switzerland, Italy, and Dusseldorf, where he was exposed to precisionist German draftsmanship.

Throughout the 1860s, Richards painted primarily along the New Jersey shore, New England, and New York State, creating detailed naturalistic views of the picturesque landscape and seascape. He was elected honorary member of the National Academy of Design in 1862, (he became an Academician in 1871), and in 1863, he joined the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, an American Pre-Raphaelite group. Richards departed again for Europe to study in 1866, making a perilous return voyage to America in December the following year. That stormy Atlantic crossing might have significantly influenced Richards’s choice to concentrate on marine subjects. His biographer, Harrison S. Morris (1856–1948), speculated that, “It was then for the first time that his mind fully realized the majesty, power and beauty of the sea.”3

Richards visited Newport in 1869 with the noted New York art dealer and collector Samuel P. Avery. Known as a pleasant place to spend the summer, especially for an artist, Richards described Newport’s appeal to art critic George W. Sheldon: “the atmosphere, sea and shore, are unsurpassed in artistic qualities.”4 In addition, wealthy patrons, who could afford to buy painted remembrances of Newport, resided here in the summer and year-round.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
Becalmed, Off Newport, 1882
Watercolor on paper, 31⁄16 x 4⅞ inches
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,
Promised Gift of Dorrance H. Hamilton in
memory of Samuel M. V. Hamilton, (74.5.2008).

In his autobiography of Richards, Harrison S. Morris observed, “He copied what he saw with a minute fidelity; he was led to copy because he loved what he saw, and recognized the divine light shining through its surfaces. But if he had not also brought to the worship of nature his own penetrating individuality, he would not have made works which all his contemporaries acknowledge as embodiments of truth and beauty when they say, ‘That is a Richards.’”

During the 1870s, Richards first rented then purchased a home for his family in Newport while continuing to spend time in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and abroad. In 1881, he built a house he called Gray Cliff in a remote location on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, intended, according to Morris, “only for summer, when it was possible to paint outdoors on that wild coast.”5

In his intimate biography of Richards, Morris described the artist as “a kindly, intellectual gentleman” who would enter a room “almost shyly, so modest and quiet was he…and yet his manner…denoted a man of original thought and unconstrained opinion, the artist who sees a little deeper into objective life than most people, and whose instincts are, therefore, less confined to convention.”6

Richards was also “a shrewd and careful manager of his own fortunes…”7 who understood the value of maintaining close relationships with his patrons. In the 1870s, he began producing small jewel-like watercolors depicting scenes in the Newport environs and his travels. The postcard-size paintings or coupons, aptly deemed “Tokens of a Friendship”8 by art historian Linda S. Ferber, were treasured by friends and family, and often spurred commissions for larger works from patrons. Richards sent nearly two hundred of these miniature watercolors, each measuring about three by five inches, to industrialist George Whitney, one of the leading collectors in Philadelphia and the artist’s biggest patron, and after Whitney’s death, to his grandson George Whitney Outerbridge.9 After descending in the family, one hundred and ten survived as a collection acquired by noted private collectors, eventually consigned to art dealer William Vareika,10 from whom Mrs. Samuel M.V. Hamilton acquired them.11 This special collection was donated to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) with the proviso that the Newport Art Museum be granted preferential lending rights to the collection in perpetuity.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
The Sheep Pasture, Conanicut Island, 1884
Watercolor and Chinese white on paper
33⁄16 x 415⁄16 inches

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Promised Gift of Dorrance H. Hamilton in memory of Samuel M. V. Hamilton, (91.5.2008).

Between 1881 and 1882, Richards built a Shingle-style house he called Gray Cliff, on Conanicut Island overlooking the east passage of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. According to Morris, “This was meant only for the summer, when it was possible to paint outdoors on that wild coast.

Richards cherished the isolation of Gray Cliff, but his presence attracted Philadelphia friends and others who also built houses in the area. He wrote to George Whitney, “the charm of solitude is gone forever, but the beauty of detail still remains and nothing can destroy the deep satisfaction we have in our own little kingdom and the wide sea.”

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
The Shower We Did Not Get, 1876
Watercolor on paper, 3 x 4½ inches
Pennsylvania Academy of the
Fine Arts, Promised Gift of Dorrance H. Hamilton in memory of Samuel
M. V. Hamilton, (7.5.2008).

The collection, on loan from PAFA, is featured in From Pennsylvania to Paradise: William Trost Richards, Harrison Morris and the Art Association of Newport, an exhibition at the Newport Art Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, through September 9, 2012. Paintings in oil and watercolor, and drawings from the Newport Art Museum’s significant collection of works by Richards are featured. The exhibit is also a tribute to Richards’s biographer and friend, Harrison S. Morris, who served as managing director of PAFA from 1892 to 1905 and as president of the Art Association of Newport (AAN), now the Newport Art Museum, from 1916 through 1947. Morris used his many contacts from his directorship at PAFA and his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee of the National Academy of Design to encourage important American artists to exhibit their work in Newport.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
After a Rain, Newport, 1875
Watercolor on paper, 3 x 4½ inches
Pennsylvania Academy of the
Fine Arts, Promised Gift of Dorrance H. Hamilton in memory of Samuel
M. V. Hamilton, (4.5.2008).

The Newport Art Museum is one of the oldest continuously operating organizations of its kind in the United States, and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. This exhibit is the crown in a series of centennial exhibitions that explore the role the organization, Newport, and the Narragansett Bay region have played in American art history and Rhode Island’s contemporary art scene. A memorial exhibition for William Trost Richards was held at the Art Association of Newport in 1920, beginning a long association between the late artist and this museum. Several exhibitions devoted to Richards and some of his family members have been held at the Newport Art Museum and the Museum’s significant collection of Richards’ works has continued to grow over the years.

William Trost Richards (1833–1905)
Off the South Shore, 1903
Oil on canvas, 20¼ x 32¼ inches
Newport Art Museum collection. Purchased by members of the Art Association of Newport (1922).

This work was shown in a 1920 retrospective at the Art Association of Newport and subsequently purchased for the AAN. It combines traces of his luminist sensibilities as well as a more somber tonalist pallete indicative of the turn-of-the-century style. In This Was My Newport, author Maud Elliott recalled, “When, after his death, the Art Association acquired one of his pictures through the subscription of its members and friends, old sea-dogs and fishermen came to contribute their bit, because they had known and loved the painter.”

Featured in From Pennsylvania to Paradise are a number of works by artists and colleagues of Morris who exhibited at the AAN, including Robert Reid (1862–1929), Henry O. Tanner (1859–1937) and Robert Vonnoh (1858–1933). The Richards’ collection will be shown again this fall at PAFA in ‘A Mine of Beauty:’ Landscapes by William Trost Richards, running from September 29 through December 30, 2012. For more information about From Pennsylvania to Paradise, visit or call 401.848.8200. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

Gayle Hargreaves has been writing about art and culture since 2004. Nancy Whipple Grinnell is curator for the Newport Art Museum & Art Association in Newport, Rhode Island.

1. Harrison S. Morris, William Trost Richards: Masterpieces of the Sea—A Brief Outline of his Life and Art (Philadelphia: Washington Square Press, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1912), 55.
2. Morris, 9.
3. Morris, 36.
4. George Sheldon, “American Painters: William Trost Richards.” The Art Journal 3 (1877) cited by William Vareika in a lecture at the Newport Art Museum, February 18, 2012.
5. Morris, 39.
6. Morris, 7–8
7. Morris, 9.
8. Linda S. Ferber, Tokens of a Friendship: Miniature Watercolors by William
T. Richards from the Richard and Gloria Manney Collection (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982).
9. Linda S. Ferber, A Mine of Beauty, (Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Academy
of the Fine Arts 2012), 35.
10. William Vareika Fine Arts Ltd, Newport, R.I.
11. Provenance confirmed by PAFA.