Brandywine River Museum

Chadds Ford, PA



Pastoral Interlude: William T. Richards in Chester County


Born and raised in Philadelphia, William T. Richards (1833-1905) was initially very well-known as an innovative landscape painter. By mid-career, he was famous for expressive images of coastal scenes. In the mid-1880s, after purchasing a farm in the Brandywine Valley of Chester County, Pennsylvania, he tuned again to landscape painting, producing a series of works depicting the beauty of the area.

Through November 18, 2001 the Brandywine River Museum win present a special exhibition of 33 paintings by Richards, works executed between 1884 and 1889. Pastoral Interlude: William T. Richards in Chester County results from research and selections by guest curator, Dr. Linda S. Ferber, the preeminent authority on Richards and the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. (left: Vignette: Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1885, watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 inches, Collection of Brandywine River Museum, photograph courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum)

Pastoral Interlude celebrates an important phase of Richards' career. The works he created during this period provoked a universally positive response from patrons and critics as a welcome departure from his seascapes and tightly painted landscapes of earlier decades.

A catalogue will accompany the Brandywine River Museum's special exhibition. The following text has been excerpted and adapted from an essay in the catalogue by guest curator Dr. Linda S. Ferber.


By the early 1870s Richards was already established as a coastal and marine painter specializing in the terrain at and near the recently developed resort of Atlantic City, New Jersey. From 1874 he summered regularly in Newport, becoming identified with images of the Rhode Island as well as the New Jersey coast, the subjects for which he is still best known today. The same decade also witnessed Richards' rise to fame as a participant in the American Watercolor Movement. However, in the mid-1880s, after almost two decades of painting coastal and marine subjects, William Trost Richards (1833-1905) returned to landscape in a succession of paintings inspired by sites in rural Pennsylvania. (left above: On the Brandywine, Chester County, 1884-1889, oil on board, 10 x 20 inches, Private collection, photograph courtesy of the Brandywine River Museum)
The catalyst for this return occurred in 1884, when the artist purchased the Oldmixon Farm in Chester County to provide a livelihood for his eldest daughter and her family. Oldmixon Farm was located at the western edge of the county in West Caln township near Sadsburyville and not far from Coatesville. As a born and bred Philadelphian, Richards was shaped first by the rich local culture and artistic influences of his hometown. As a boy in the 1840s, he made fishing and sketching forays along the Frankfort and Wissahickon Creeks near Philadelphia. Later he tramped and sketched farther afield, west to Chester County in 1851, and north to the Wyoming Valley in 1852. Over the next six years, after the purchase of Oldmixon Farm, Richards enjoyed regular Chester County sojourns and opportunities to interpret the rolling farmlands, waterways and woods in a region that had long been Quaker territory rich with historical associations. Thereafter, summer seasons were mostly divided between Graycliff, at the edge of the New England coast, and the Oldmixon Farm. He was newly inspired by the Brandywine scenes: "Before the weather had become so cold, ... I drove over to Coatesville, by ways more charming than I could have believed. In one place for instance the road runs by a mill race which on each side is bordered by old apple trees -- through which is seen the long slopes of the meadow. Everywhere there are pictures which make me impatient for
next summer."
Working against his current market as a marine painter, the artist portrayed the region in several monumental landscape compositions, in a series of watercolors, and in vigorous plein-air oil sketches that captured every nuance of terrain and weather. Landscape subjects had figured prominently during the first two decades of his career when American scenery was the main focus of his ambition. Richards' commitment to interpret the American landscape had been early and complete. "You know somewhat of the high ideals and standards I have formed," he wrote in an earnest 1854 "declaration of principles": "I care not to be a painter of trees and water and houses if they can be all... I [shall] endeavor to do even the commonest incident in art well... [and] I shall seek also to be -- a Poet." As a young landscape artist in the 1850s, Richards professed idols who were the luminaries of the New York School: Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Frederic Church (1826-1900), and Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900). Richards entered what he termed the "race" for fame at a time dominated by the New York School's national landscape type based on sites in New York State and New England. Both worshipful and competitive, he tellingly described himself in orbit around these "landscape suns."
But at the time, the mounting sectional tensions of the 1850s had already begun to undermine the assumption of widespread political and cultural unity implied in such landscape imagery by use of the panoptic point of view and by popular response to New York and New England landscape subjects as national symbols. Richards did respond to these social and political tensions in subtle but profound ways over the next decade, and beyond, by his choice of landscape styles and subjects. Barely a year after the Adirondack series of 1857, for example, Richards began to retreat from the national program of panoramic wilderness subjects. He espoused John Ruskin's program of arduous and close study from nature. Richards' devotion to Ruskinian truth to nature led to production of his first all-foreground landscapes; a radical change in outlook from the panoramic bird's eye view -- elevated and unobstructed in all directions -- to the worm's eye view -- a claustrophobic vision set at ground level and limited to objects immediately before the eye with little or no recession. By 1861 Richards was on his way to becoming the best-known landscape painter among Ruskin's disciples in the United States, who were known as the American Pre-Raphaelites. Richards produced obsessively detailed paintings: hybrids of landscape and still-life like Some Fell Among Thorns (c. 1863), and Neglected Comer of a Wheatfield (1865).
These marvels of close study, painted during the years of the Civil War, were also dense allegories of horticultural and agricultural symbolism. However, in time, this legacy of close attention to descriptive detail earned increasing criticism as literal, mimetic and unimaginative, especially as American taste began to turn in the 1870s toward a more painterly, suggestive approach to landscape. Richards returned once again to his earlier and more expansive style, but now his works were tinged with a more somber temper. When considered in the cultural context of the last quarter of the 19fh century, when the confident world view of the earlier period had waned, Richards' stately Chester County pastorals gain wider resonance. Changes in
ideas about the meaning of the American landscape and man's place in nature reflected scientific challenges to traditional beliefs and values. Also, political unrest and economic uncertainty prevailed in the United States during the post-Civil War era in which a rapid transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society and new artistic impulses from Europe modified popular taste and influenced markets. Although in his later series of Chester County paintings, Richards revisited motifs treated in earlier works, such as the harvest, the seasons and the times of day, these paintings, unlike his earlier works, the landscapes of the 1880s are different. Many, such as February and October are cast in a retrospective, even melancholy, mood
that departs from the celebratory and optimistic note animating his earlier interpretations of these themes in the 1850s and 1860s.
We understand now that Richards' Pennsylvania landscapes of the 1880s not only celebrated the wooded hills, winding streams and harvest fields of the Brandywine region, but also accommodated myriad cultural messages and memories. These stately pastorals functioned as sites in which the artist, his patrons, and a larger audience worked out critical private and collective anxieties, the "surly moods," associated with late 19th-century culture in America.


Gallery Wall Text Panels


The Oldmixon Farm & The Pennsylvania Incubating Company

In June 1884, Richards acquired the Oldmixon Farm on 140 acres near Sadsburyville in Chester County. The farming venture was undertaken in large part to provide a living for his eldest daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, William Price, who established a poultry business there as well. Richards also anticipated fresh painting opportunities. "I expect new inspiration in Chester Co.," he wrote soon after the purchase, "and artistically at any rate mean to make it a success." The Prices took up residence in the Farmhouse, a small white house appearing in one of the oil studies. The senior Richardses occupied a large early nineteenth-century Georgian-style house, known as the "mansion" where the artist set up a studio. Built on a high knoll that commanded views of miles of rolling farmland and wooded hills, the house was said to have been erected before the Civil War by Captain George H. Oldmixon, a retired English naval officer who assembled various properties into the farm named for him.

While Oldmixon Farm was never Richards' primary residence, he looked forward to frequent visits, relishing his artist-rambles in the Chester County countryside. The artist's letters to the Prices are also filled with practical advice and instruction about projects at the Farm, demonstrating that he was more than a silent partner in farming and raising poultry. Richards also drew the tidy views of barns and poultry sheds that served as letterhead and advertisements for the Pennsylvania Incubating Company. Launched sometime in 1885, the enterprise struggled to succeed until a fire in December 1889 destroyed the large poultry house, putting it out of business. This disaster effectively ended the Chester County interlude. Oldmixon Farm was sold in 1890. The Price family relocated to Newark, New Jersey, and the Richardses settled permanently on the Rhode Island coast.


The Chester County Watercolors

During the 1870s, Richards had risen to fame as a participant in the American Watercolor Movement. He contributed some of the finest work in the medium, ranging from a style of great delicacy and transparency in works like The Spring House, 1888, to a more vigorous technique in opaque pigments, often working on a grand scale, as in A Pennsylvania Valley, 1886. Charming miniature watercolors like Head-water of the Brandywine, near Coatesville, Pennsylvania, 1884 belonged to a special category called "Coupons".

Following a long-established custom, Richards enclosed these Coupons in letters to his major patron George Whitney, a Philadelphia industrialist. These tiny but detailed compositions provided samples from which Whitney and his friends could select subjects for paintings. They also illustrated the picturesque descriptions of Chester County Richards included in his letters: "Before the weather had become so cold, Anna and I drove over to Coatesville, by ways more charming than I could have believed. In one place for instance the road runs by a mill race which on each side is bordered by old apple trees -- through which is seen the long slopes of the meadow. Everywhere there are pictures which make me impatient for next summer."


The Parables

These variations on the harvest theme, painted as a pair, are related to a series of works Richards had painted years before during the Civil War. Their narrative is drawn from a biblical source, St. Matthew's Parable of the Sower. Combinations of botanical still life and landscape painting, their titles indicate that they are to be read as moral allegories of the contrast between good husbandry and bad. A sunny sky and a ripe grain field reinforce the benign implication of "good ground," while gray clouds and an invasion of luxuriant flowering weeds underline pessimism for fruitful growth of wheat amid "thorns."

In the 1860s, the connotations of this subject could not fail to have been read as national and political when the Union cause was often symbolized by wheat in the popular press. The 1880s were also a time of difficult transition in the United States as the nation was evolving from an agrarian to an industrial economy. High tariffs served business interests but placed American farmers in difficult economic straits. Richards' own involvement in agriculture brought these issues even closer to home.'"The deplorable condition of the West Chester farmers," Richards wrote in 1888, "has made me alter my views about many things of late years." In light of such circumstances, it is both tempting and plausible to propose that the Chester County harvest themes of the 1880s, like those of the 1860s, carried a political narrative. This would explain the artist's renewed interest in the Parable of the Sower, conferring a religious connotation upon his images of agriculture as a metaphor for social harmony.


The Exhibition Paintings

Richards enlisted his outdoor studies as references in the production of large paintings of Chester County intended for display at major exhibition venues; works like February, October, and The Valley of the Brandywine (September). The importance of these paintings was signaled both by scale and by the fact that they were compositions, that is studio inventions synthesized from a combination of direct visual experience (provided by reference to plein-air studies) and traditional landscape conventions. Themes with long literary and visual traditions -- the seasons, the harvest, and the times of the day -- provided subjects for the exhibition paintings.

These stately Chester County pastorals gain even wider resonance when considered in the cultural context of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The confident, expansive world view of an earlier period had waned. Changes in ideas about the meaning of the American landscape and man's place in nature reflected scientific challenges to long-standing beliefs and values. Political unrest and economic uncertainty also prevailed in the United States during the post-Civil War era of rapid transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. New artistic impulses from Europe modified the public's taste and influenced markets, undermining the popularity of the so-called native school. These were difficult years for most artists of Richards' generation and for their patrons.

We now understand over a century later that Richards' Chester County landscapes of the 1880s should be read as more than painterly celebrations of the wooded hills, winding streams, and harvest fields of the Brandywine region. His images of a familiar terrain long-cultivated and inhabited -- the opposite of a primordial untamed wilderness -- accommodated larger messages and collective memories for many Americans. These solemn pastorals are, in fact, visual elegies invoking the blessings of continuity and the harmonious state that accompanies an ideal balance of human culture with the natural environment. These paintings functioned as emotional sites in which the artist, his patrons, and a larger audience worked out some of the pervasive social, intellectual, and economic anxieties associated with late nineteenth-century culture in America.


Painting Out of Doors in Chester County

The purchase of the Oldmixon Farm was a catalyst for Richards' resumption of plein-air painting. While he had painted out of doors in oils early in his career, by the late 1860s his investigations of outdoor light and color were made primarily in watercolor. Sometime around 1884, Richards resumed regular plein air work in oils -- a practice he continued for the rest of his career. He painted on artist's board and wooden panels cut to consistent sizes for convenient use in the field. The series of oil studies executed from 1884 to 1889 in Chester County document the region at every season: the look, the light, the weather, as well as the flora, fauna, and evidence of human culture (roads, buildings, fences, crops).

Taken as a whole, the Chester County oil studies represent a remarkable body of work. They are informed by a new kind of awareness and personal connection to the landscape, not only as a scenic commodity, but also as a site of agricultural production. The traditional rural motifs of seasonal conditions and labor were now driven as much by Richards' own contingent family agricultural enterprise and animal husbandry as by more familiar picturesque associations with natural cycles. These fresh insights inspired a more complete understanding of (and participation in) the ecology of a region seen in the larger exhibition paintings but that we first recognize in his plein-air work in oils.


William Trost Richards (1833-1905) - A Brief Biography

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Richards was shaped by the rich local culture and artistic influences of his hometown. He would reside there until 1859, then relocating to nearby Germantown where he lived for decades until the purchase of the Oldmixon Farm in Chester County. From 1874 he summered regularly in Newport, becoming identified with images of the Rhode Island as well as the New Jersey coast; the paintings for which he is still best known today. A two-year sojourn in England between 1878 and 1880 added British subjects to Richards' repertoire as well.

Local ties, however, remained strong, and winters were spent in Germantown until 1884. The continuing importance of the Pennsylvania landscape to the artist and to his patrons, even after his reputation as a marine painter was well established, is demonstrated by the works in this exhibition. Richards' stature as a revered native son was confirmed in 1905 when the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts awarded him the Academy's Gold Medal of Honor. He and his wife are buried in Philadelphia's historic Laurel Hill cemetery.

Catalogue essay excerpt and wall text are reprinted with permission of the Brandywine River Museum.

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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