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August 11, 2023

Acquisition: William Trost Richards

William Trost Richards, "South-West Point, Conanicut"

William Trost Richards
South-West Point, Conanicut, 1878/1879
watercolor and gouache on fibrous blue-gray wove paper
overall: 83.82 x 149.86 cm (33 x 59 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Riggs Parker, honoring their children

The National Gallery of Art has acquired William Trost Richards’s (1833–1905) South-West Point, Conanicut (1878), a watercolor generously given by Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Riggs Parker. In the late 1870s Richards experimented with the materials and techniques of his medium to spectacular effect, as exemplified in South-West Point, Conanicut. It is a significant addition to the National Gallery’s holdings of late 19th-century American watercolors and shows how his exquisite handling of opaque watercolor is complemented by his use of a fibrous, blue-gray paper support—its distinctive color and texture readily lend themselves to his rendering of crashing waves and granite cliffs.

In the United States, the founding of the American Watercolor Society in New York in 1866 fostered a growing interest in the medium of watercolor in the second half of that century. Comprising artists who ranged broadly in age and choice of subject matter, style, and technique, the American Watercolor Society generated interest by holding large, annual exhibitions. They were well-attended by the public and reviewed or at least publicized in popular journals of the time, including Harper’s Weekly. In 1878, the society held its exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York, and South-West Point, Conanicut was one of the largest works on display.

By the 1870s, Richards was well-established as one of the leading landscape painters and watercolorists of the day—especially of seascapes. Based in his native Philadelphia, he traveled along the Northeast coast, to the Jersey shore, before he discovered Rhode Island in the mid-1870s. He bought a house and then custom built one in the Newport area. Richards was particularly taken with Conanicut Island, located in the Narragansett Bay, as it was less developed at the time than other parts of the Rhode Island coast. In the summers Richards went, as he called it, “prospecting” (hiking, often with his family) to observe nature and make drawings. He brought these studies back to his studio and used them to create larger, more finished watercolors that were independent works of art in their own right.

Thought to be the artist’s largest watercolor, South-West Point, Conanicut rivals oil painting. As Richards experimented with his technique, he sought to loosen up his brushwork—making his handling broader, more impressionistic—and he moved away from his earlier, very detailed style of rendering nature. He also tried different paper supports for his watercolors, forgoing papers intended for artists with one known as carpet paper, an inexpensive, blue-gray, fibrous paper that was used, literally, to line carpets. He incorporated its blue-gray color as a midtone by allowing passages of the paper to show through in the lowering sky at upper left and in the choppy waves below. And he found that the paper’s rough texture enhanced the tactile rendering of rough waves and granite cliffs. With this dark, textured paper, Richards relied more on gouache (an opaque watercolor that is mixed with white pigment). Often thicker than traditional watercolor, gouache handles more like oil paint. He completed the composition with touches of pen and black ink that articulate various details.

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