Precise landscapes, luminous seascapes: The world of William Trost Richards

The Cantor Arts Center exhibition includes 75 drawings, watercolors and small oils from an important 19thcentury artist from America's Hudson River school.  Cantor's collection of 250 works of art put it among one of the top places to view half-a-century of Richards' oeuvre. 

Cantor Arts Center William Trost Richards' 'Newport'

William Trost Richards' 'Newport'

In the early 1980s, curator Carol Osborne made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire a watercolor by American artist William Trost Richards for the Stanford Museum. A few years later, the 1989 earthquake and the closing of the museum made the acquisition moot. No one would have been able to see it.

But in 1992 she got more than she bargained for. As the museum's associate director and chief curator, Osborne accepted the donation from M. J. and A. E. van Löben Sels of 250 of Richards' drawings and watercolors to the museum. Now Stanford is among the top places in the world to see the paintings and sketches of this prominent 19th-century artist.

The museum reopened in 1999 as the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts. Osborne has returned from retirement to be guest curator for the current exhibition, "William Trost Richards – True to Nature: Drawings, Watercolors and Oil Sketches at Stanford University," on display through Sept. 26.

Osborne called it a "beautiful and historically significant collection." She will discuss the artist's work at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 24, in the center's auditorium. The lecture is free.

The exhibition, including about 75 drawings, watercolors and small oils during Richards' half-century career, are highlights from the larger collection.

Cantor Arts Center William Trost Richards' 'Waves Crashing on Rocky Shore'

William Trost Richards' 'Waves Crashing on Rocky Shore'

William Trost Richards (1833-1905) made hundreds of meticulous, closely observed pencil sketches of trees, rocks and plants. He mirrored nature in small oil studies and panoramic canvases of precise detail and finished surface.

He was a natural fit for the Hudson River school, a group of American landscape painters influenced by their era's romanticism, while consolidating the naturalism of the preceding generation. They were heavily affected by the writings of British art critic John Ruskin.

Ruskin's gospel influenced many 19th-century American painters. "The duty of the painter is the same as that of a preacher," he wrote. He demanded the precise, meticulous observation of nature that illustrated God's glory.

Ruskin told artists to forgo "picture-manufacturing" and "stale repetition," and aim instead, "with all exertion of their concentrated powers, such marked pieces of landscape character as might bear upon them the impression of solemn, earnest and pervading thought, definitely directed, and aided by every accessory of detail, colour and idealized form, which the disciplined feeling, accumulated knowledge and unspared labour of the painter could supply."

Cantor Arts Center William Trost Richards' 'Landscape: Trees and Rocks'

William Trost Richards' 'Landscape: Trees and Rocks'

Such a doctrine – weaving together truth, nature, morality and an aesthetic theology – fit in well with the poetry of Wordsworth and, in America, the prose of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It is hard today to understand the weight of Ruskin's influence. According to Osborne, writing in the catalog for the exhibition, "Hardly any artist of the midcentury was untouched by his eloquence and passion."

Richards' sentiments echoed Ruskin's from the beginning. "Ruskin says truly that he only is great who had reached the heart of a thing, and this in the inner and most holy place," Richards wrote in 1855.

He commented, at 17, that he was fond of "long walks, not through crowded streets or city promenades, but mid wild tangled woods, rough rocky dells – bright sunny hills … mid all the beauties that might form a sweet terrestrial paradise."

As the Hudson River school was going out of fashion in the 1870s, Richards turned to the sea for inspiration.

He began to favor watercolors, with luminous scenes of surf rolling onto the sandy beaches of Rhode Island near his summer home on Conanicut Island, or crashing against the rocks of Cornwall, England, where he often painted. King Arthur's mythical castle on the Cornish cliffs of Tintagel was another favorite subject, and one beloved to the Pre-Raphaelites' passion for the medieval – they, too, were disciples of Ruskin.

But the Pre-Raphaelites eventually became démodé, as everything does. As modernism took the 20th century by storm, painters like Richards went into eclipse.  Since the 1970s, however, reappraisal of Richards' work has revived the reputation of this major American artist – a reevaluation that flowers in the new exhibition.

Osborne's 207-page, fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition.

Admission to the museum and to the exhibition is free. The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to 8 p.m. For museum information, call (650) 723-4177.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

Anna Koster, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 725-4657,