Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 10, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Richard H. W. Brauer. The essay was previously included in a 2001 illustrated brochure published by the Brauer Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated brochure were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the illustrated brochure, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:
Corn Shocks and Pumpkins, 1864, by William Trost Richards (1833-1905)
by Richard H. W. Brauer
William Trost Richards' oil painting, Corn Shocks and Pumpkins presents a richly glowing sunset celebrating a simple Pennsylvania farm held after harvest. It is likely that he painted this outdoors, at least in part, quickly, in view of his subjects. For he here abandoned his usual careful "leaf painting" technique -- that of patiently recording minute facts -- to boldly brushing in details of the foreground corn shocks, pumpkins and wooden fence. Richards further compromised his obsessive Ruskin-inspired realism by subordinating some details to the spatial and atmospheric requirements of the entire landscape. For instance, to harmonize the foreground with the rest of the scene, Richards fitted the tops of the foreground corn shocks together with the closely observed tree silhouettes in the uncultivated middle distance. Further, to help imply spatial distance, Richards reverted to the devices of the American landscape painting tradition: he placed the tallest shock on the left to modestly frame the middle and far distance of the scene, and he placed the nearest fencepost at the bottom to further provide foreground contrast with the far-distant mountains directly above, beyond the opening in the tree grove. Finally, Richards makes the land and horizon emotionally resonant and unified, enveloping them (probably by applying glazes in the studio) in the ruddy atmosphere of a "second sunset," i.e. in the ambient reflections briefly present after the sun sinks from sight. Consequently, Richards captures -- through a special accommodation of detail with general effect -- a wonderful, momentary mood of reverie regarding nature's domesticated and unspoiled bounty.
Corn Shocks and Pumpkins represents vividly the early 1860's vogue for painting dramatic sunsets. Linda S. Ferber, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum and leading Richards scholar, wrote in the 1985 book The New Path; Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites (225), that in this and in a similar painting, Richards' "choice of an evening subject may well have been inspired by the fame of Frederic Edwin Church's (q.v.) Twilight in the Wilderness of 1860 (Cleveland Museum of Art), a work that stimulated what James Jackson Jarves termed in 1864 'a virulent epidemic of sunsets'"(90). Ferber goes on to say, "Corn Shocks and Pumpkins...demonstrates Richards' interest in the more dramatic effects Jarves alluded to."
Finally, Corn Shocks and Pumpkins exemplifies the impulse of most Ruskin-inspired landscapists to find ways to reconcile truth to detail with truth to atmosphere. In the 1850s and early 1860s, British art critic John Ruskin's five volumes of Modern Painters and such books as his Elements of Drawing were published in the United States. In these books Ruskin warned against the falsity of landscape painting conventions. Instead of studying the work of landscapists of the past, he advocated that young artists first closely observe nature for themselves, record simple nature accurately, and so reveal the particular truths of nature as well as its pattern reflecting divinity. "Look at it [grass] and try to draw it as it is, and don't think how somebody told you to do grass" (Elements of Drawing,109).
At mid-century, many of the foremost American landscape painters were variously influenced by Ruskin. Among the earliest were Frederic E. Church, Asher B. Durand, and John F. Kensett. By 1856 William Trost Richards' landscapes reflected his reading of Ruskin's Modern Painters: in March, 1863, Richards was nominated to membership in the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, a short-lived association of the American Pre-Raphaelite landscapists that demanded the strictest interpretation of Ruskin's writings. Yet Ruskin scholar Roger B. Stein has pointed out, "The inadequacy of Ruskin's canon of truth to nature... was that it focused attention on perception and on the reproduction of detail, but did not confront the problems of composition and organization." Hence one sees in Corn Shocks and Pumpkins Richards' efforts to compromise and find his own solutions to the problem of spatial composition and atmospheric tonality in his highly detailed paintings.
Junius R. Sloan (1827-1900), the midwest portrait and landscape painter whose collection-of-record has been entrusted to Valparaiso University, purchased Ruskin's Elements of Drawing in 1857 and four volumes of Modern Painters in 1861. His oil and pencil landscapes and nature studies of 1860 and 1865 seem to have been instructed by Ruskin. In On the Geneva Farm, July, 1865, Sloan crisply delineates particular truths in a haze-free, relatively shallow space. One can clearly identify the pink flower clusters of a six foot tall Joe-Pie Weed in the foreground, and a towering, perhaps first-growth elm in the middle distance.
An inexplicable shift in style came just two months later. Apparently on a sketching trip at Lake George, in New York, during the period September 28 - October 4, Sloan painted the 10 x 14 inch oil sketch Showery Afternoon on Lake George. This trip was followed by a return to the woodland groves of the Spencer homestead, Geneva, Ohio, where he painted the 14 x 10 inch oil sketch On the Old Farm - Geneva, Ohio. Gone were clearly defined leaves and plants. These seemingly on-the-spot, quick oil sketches sought primarily instead the general truths of tone, atmosphere, and space. Subsequently, Sloan's prairie and later paintings had new balance, combining truth to an increasingly relaxed rendering of factual detail with truth to atmospheric space.
What caused this abrupt change of style? Was it Sloan's response to the requirements of quick, outdoor oil color sketching? Or had he contact with other artists influencing him to change? There is no reason to think Sloan had contacts with Richards. However, in the Sloan collection there are two Junius Sloan oil color rock studies, dated 1865, inscribed Lake George, and created in the manner of the rock studies of Asher B. Durand. Why did Sloan follow Durand's approach? And finally, was the change in Sloan's style due to dissatisfaction with "airless" (as son Percy later called them) Ruskin-inspired paintings? Perhaps, when all is said and done, like Richards in his Corn Shocks and Pumpkins painting, Sloan responded to many influences and desires to change finally, on his own, to a more satisfactory expressive style.
We at the Brauer Museum of Art want the public to enjoy this gift of Corn Shocks and Pumpkins, a true landscape gem. We urge all to savor this painting's celebration of simple rural America, to enjoy its dramatic sunset, and to be informed by its demonstration of a shift in style away from a strict Ruskin-inspired realism -- an instructive parallel, perhaps, to a similar shift in style in 1865 in the landscape painting of Junius Sloan.
© Richard H. W. Brauer February, 2001
About the author
Note: The brochure containing the above essay was published by the Museum in connection with the acquisition of Corn Shocks and Pumpkins, 1864, by William Trost Richards (1833-1905). The painting was donated to the Museum through the generosity of Richard and Phyllis Duesenberg.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Brauer Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.