Tuesday, May 26, 2015

W.T. Richards "Into the Woods"

William Trost Richards painted Into the Woods when he was about 27 years old. It's in oil, and it's not large (15.5 x 20 inches / 39.7 x 51 cm). 

William Trost Richards, Into the Woods, oil/canvas, 1860
I would guess that it was painted entirely on the spot in at least a dozen sittings, and probably in at least two different locations. As with some of Asher B. Durand's woodland studies, the foreground and background seem to be composited together. Such complete vistas rarely exist readymade in nature.

The painting caught the attention of the art public of his time. He had read Elements of Drawing and Modern Paintersthe books by John Ruskin which urged young artists to be absolutely faithful to the small details of nature.

William Trost Richards, Woodland Brook, 1861
Several artists tried to take up the idea, but WTR did so with the most tenacity. One observer said "he persisted, and carried imitation in art further" than the other pioneers. Another commentator noted that he had "a slow, keen vision, and a slow, sure hand."

Other critics argued that he missed the poetry for the details. In fact, WTR shifted his attention more to express the moods of light and atmosphere in his later canvases. Ruskin suggested that young artists begin by modeling themselves after the Pre-Raphaelites, and with that under their belts, try to emulate the more evocative aspects of Turner.

The painting is in the collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine Previously on GJ: Foliage / Forest Interiors
Exhibition catalog: The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites


Mark Szymanski said...

I have seen the 2nd painting in person, "Woodland Brook", at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was hanging just to the left of Church's "Cotopaxi", I spent an hour in that room alone, spellbound by just these two paintings. The photograph of "Woodland Brook" doesn't do it justice at all (most photos don't), it looks almost crass in the way it is photographed and misses all of the subtly of color and value which exists when you view it in person.

It was so loaded with detail, so expertly done, there is always something new to excite you wherever you look. If you are ever in Detroit, it's worth your time to stop at the DIA, it really is a world class collection.

Marque Todd said...

It's funny how much difference there is in style between the two paintings. I must say, at least from the photographs, that I like the first one better. There is something "visually fresh" about the first one that seems to be somewhat missing in the second when they are compared side by side.

Dean Johnson said...

James, I am so glad you posted this. Your note that W.T Richards read Ruskin's Elements of Drawing struck a chord with me. Ruskin's Book made me feel like I was being personally coached by a person with a generous spirit, and a witty sense of humor about the somewhat daunting task of learning to draw and paint well. Some of his comments had me laughing out loud at times, such as one warning against prematurely giving away the products of your newly acquired skill at drawing, noting that one's early efforts will likely make the value of the paper and ink less than it would have been if one simply gave away the art supplies themselves! He had a particular audience for this text, and he seemed to know how to make what could have been merely technical exercises, into an invitation to embark on a journey on a number of levels. Your nice combination of writing and art inspires for similar reasons. Do you have a shortlist of writers who most inspire you?

James Gurney said...

Marque, now that you mention it, I kind of agree. The first one seems to my eye to be painted entirely on the spot, while the second one seems more like a product of the studio. Not necessarily better, but different.

Mark, you're so lucky to have seen the original! The effect is always diminished in reproduction.

Dean, if you like Ruskin, try Asher B. Durand's "Letters on Landscape Painting," which is published in the back of the recent book on Asher Durand by Linda Ferber. I'm assuming you're already familiar with the art instruction writings of Harold Speed, Andrew Loomis, Norman Rockwell, and the Famous Artists' Course. If you press the "Book Review" tab on the left side of the blog, you can find lots of other book recommendations.