Art: Miniature landscapes mailed to his patron

William Trost Richards had a Phila. patron. F. GUTEKUNST, c.1877
William Trost Richards had a Phila. patron. F. GUTEKUNST, c.1877

In letters to his collector and patron George Whitney, William Trost Richards sent detailed 3-by-5 "coupons."

Posted: October 21, 2012

William Trost Richards, a Philadelphia landscape painter of some renown during the late 19th century, enjoyed a working situation that few artists today are lucky enough to fall into.

A wealthy patron, Philadelphia industrialist and art collector George Whitney, not only subsidized Richards and bought dozens of his oils and watercolors, but he also promoted the work among other collectors.

The two were friends who corresponded regularly for about 10 years when Richards was out of the city. This correspondence produced a remarkable visual archive, now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a promised gift from local philanthropist Dorrance H. Hamilton.

The gift consists of 110 miniature landscapes that Richards included in letters to Whitney. These served the same purpose as the sketches that Vincent van Gogh included in letters to his brother, Theo, except that the landscape miniatures are fully finished pieces - and in color.

When I say miniature, I mean roughly 3 by 5 inches, but as finely detailed and panoramic as canvases many times that size. These "coupons," as Whitney called them, not only showed the patron what his artist was looking at, but also served as samples of what Whitney might want to commission in oils.

George Whitney's money came from a factory at 16th and Callowhill Streets that manufactured wheels for railroad cars. He was a major collector, known nationally but forgotten today, who was particularly drawn to Richards' work.

After Whitney died in 1885, his extensive collection of 19th-century art was dispersed at auction. Half of the roughly 200 tiny landscapes were passed down through the Whitney family. It was these that Hamilton subsequently acquired.

Born in 1833 in Philadelphia, Richards had very little formal art training, yet was so skilled that he became affiliated in midcentury with the American Pre-Raphaelites.

They were artists who took to heart English critic John Ruskin's dictum that the highest value in art was absolute fidelity to nature. We can see this documentary rigor not only in the miniatures but also in several larger paintings in his PAFA exhibition, "A Mine of Beauty."

Organized by curator Anna O. Marley, the show occupies two galleries in the academy's landmark building. One hundred eight miniatures (two were omitted for thematic consistency) are augmented by a dozen large and small oils and watercolors that create a context for them.

Three paintings in particular exemplify the meticulous rendering and subdued mood of Richards' mature style - The Forest of 1868, The Wissahickon of 1872, and the large seascape Old Ocean's Gray and Melancholy Waste of 1885.

The miniatures were made between 1875, the year after Richards began to spend summers at Newport, R.I., and 1885, when Whitney died.

The largest number of landscapes and seascapes depict locales around Narragansett Bay, particularly Newport, at the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, and nearby Conanicut Island, which divides the lower bay into East and West Passages.

Richards painted many other landscapes during an extended trip in 1878-79 along the southwest coast of England.

He became especially fond of rugged Conanicut Island, known today by the name of the town that occupies it, Jamestown. In the early 1880s, the artist built a house on a granite bluff overlooking both bay and ocean; about 1890, he moved there permanently.

He found the island endlessly inspiring, as the large number of Jamestown miniatures indicates. Neither the exhibition nor its catalog indicates how many miniatures were worked up into larger pictures, although there are two such pairs on view.

The miniatures are complete landscapes, not close-ups or rough sketches, so at the scale of an index card, they test one's visual acuity. The academy has thoughtfully provided magnifying glasses for visitors whose vision is less than perfect.

The People's Champion Jeremy Deller won the 2004 Turner Prize, which tells us that somebody in Britain takes him seriously as an artist. Yet, his exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, "Joy in People," reveals that he's really a cross between an impresario and a cultural anthropologist.

"Joy in People" is all about championing demotic creativity: ordinary people expressing their desires, passions, and delight in being alive. It doesn't involve traditional art practice such as making objects - it's mainly about responding in various ways to life's daily vicissitudes.

With Deller, it also involves a bit of solipsism. One enters this exhibition through a recreation of the poster-filled bedroom he occupied as a teenager.

It's "installed" with an "exhibition" that Deller "curated" for his friends. Unless you're British and belong to his generation (he was born in 1966), it's likely to strike you as banal. Juvenilia could hardly be otherwise.

From that inauspicious introduction, one moves into evocations of specific examples of popular culture that Deller finds fascinating, even significant.

One of these is a super-screen video featuring the adventures of a professional wrestler named Adrian Street, accented by several of his flamboyant costumes on mannequins.

Another is a parade float that recreates Valerie's snack bar in the city of Manchester, where Deller organized a people's procession for a festival there in 2009. ICA staff will serve you a free cuppa if you're a tea drinker.

The oddest bit of all is a gallery devoted to a film of Deller's thousand-person 2001 reenactment of a violent confrontation between workers and police during the British miners' strike of 1984, which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously crushed.

Through posters and quotations, Deller devotes considerable attention to rock musicians such as Neil Young, David Bowie, and Shaun Rider, whom he seems to regard as major poets for the ages. I couldn't tell if he was being satirical.

Except for brief video clips of a klezmer quartet and a steel-drum band, very little in "Joy in People" is either joyful or even modestly insightful. Some of it is amusing, though.

This is because Deller's fundamental premise - that he's evoking "the creativity and zeal with which people resist mainstream values and patterns of consumption" - is ironically wrongheaded.

The personalities and events he celebrates here represent the quintessence of mainstream values, that is to say, mass taste. Art by the people of Deller's universe proves to be more appealing in theory than in practice.


Art: Richards at PAFA, Deller at ICA

"A Mine of Beauty: Landscapes by William Trost Richards" continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St., through Dec. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m.

to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission to landmark building is $10 general, $8 for visitors 60 and older and students with I.D., and $6 for visitors 13 through 18. Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.

"Jeremy Deller: Joy in People" continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 36th and Sansom Streets, through Dec. 30. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 a.m.

to 6 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Free. Information: 215-898-7108

or www.icaphila.org.


Contact Edward J. Sozanski at edward.sozanski@gmail.com.

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