Experiments in Watercolor

William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905). “Woodland Boulders,” ca. 1877-1878. Transparent and opaque watercolors over graphite on gray/green, moderately thick, smooth textured wove paper, Sheet: 10 1/16 x 14 7/16 in. (25.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Mrs. William T. Brewster through the National Academy of Design

American landscape painter William Trost Richards (1833–1905) was at the forefront of the rise of watercolor painting in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Inspired by a trip to London in 1855 and a landmark exhibition of British oil paintings and watercolors that traveled to Philadelphia in 1858, Richards began working in watercolor in the late 1850s, producing outdoor studies of landscapes and still life grounded in careful observation of nature.

He took up watercolor again in earnest in the late 1860s and 1870s, gravitating toward marine and coastal scenes that were well suited to the fluid and transparent qualities of the medium. His artistic vision encompassed both panoramic landscapes and close-up studies. Woodland Boulders, an example of the latter, resembles Asher B. Durand’s intimate forest interiors that focus on moss-covered boulders thrust into the foreground of the composition. Like Durand, Richards was devoted to direct observation of geological and botanical details and the belief that God’s presence existed everywhere in nature, even in humble rocks.

William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905). A High Tide at Atlantic City, 1873. Opaque watercolor with touches of translucent watercolor on moderately thick, moderately textured wove paper, 8 7/16 x 13 15/16 in. (21.4 x 35.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased with funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Leonard L. Milberg

To create body and texture, he generally used an additive technique — laying down transparent washes of color and then applying touches of opaque paints.

Featuring 20 paintings and studies, the exhibition “William Trost Richards: Experiments in Watercolor” focuses on the ways in which Richards employed colored and textured papers, explored various densities of paint application, and experimented with larger formats that approximated the scale and finish of his oil paintings.

William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905). Rhode Island Coast: Conanicut Island, ca. 1880. Transparent watercolor with touches of opaque watercolor on cream, moderately thick, slightly textured wove paper, 10 x 14 7/16 in. (25.4 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Mrs. William T. Brewster through the National Academy of Design

The innovative works on view through September 9, 2018, at the Brooklyn Museum reveal the artist’s remarkable technical facility and range, as well as his significant contribution to the evolving and enduring role of American watercolor practice in the late nineteenth century.

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