Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite on tan wove paper
Partial purchase through gifts from Richard and Diana Beattie and partial gift of Theodore and Ellen Conant; W.997.11
Philadelphia artist William Trost Richards was a forerunner of the American watercolor revival of the late 1860s and 1870s. Encouraged by the writings of British critic John Ruskin, who advocated the medium in his Elements of Drawing of 1857, Richards remained steadfast in his belief in the artistic legitimacy of watercolor. Richards’s intensive work in watercolor coincided with a new stylistic direction for the artist and an emerging fascination with shoreline subjects that he would explore for the rest of his career. In the early 1870s he painted primarily along the New Jersey shore, where, as his son recalled, he “stood for hours . . . with folded arms, studying the motion of the sea, until people thought him insane.” Richards rendered the spare design elements of this scene in characteristically precise detail but capitalized on the transparency of the watercolor medium to convey the moist, hazy atmosphere of the coast. Instead of the almost obsessive hairline hatchings of watercolor used by several other American disciples of Ruskin’s “truth to nature” philosophy, Richards favored a broader wash on lightly toned paper. The tan color of the sheet shows through some areas of the thinly applied pigment and is left exposed in others, contributing to the diffuse summer glow and overall tonal harmony of the work. The colored, absorbent sheet required him to use touches of opaque watercolor (also known as gouache, or body color) for highlights, as seen in the distant sail, breaking waves, and wispy clouds. Three faintly drawn distant gulls soar against the sky, bringing the taut work into exquisite balance. The horizontal format, spare composition, near-monochromatic palette, and diffuse, aerial glow are qualities associated with the luminist aesthetic that came to prominence at this time.
Last Updated: 4/29/09