Richards painted this unidentified landscape in his Philadelphia studio shortly before he turned his attention primarily to the sea and coastal subjects for which he is best known. A native Philadelphian, he received his first training from Paul Weber (1823–1916), a German artist living in that city. After a study trip in 1855–1856 to Italy, France, and Germany, he began painting and drawing landscapes in the detailed naturalistic manner associated with John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, then widely popular among American artists. In fact, in 1863 he became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, which promoted that approach.1Wilmerding et al., 1981, 159.
On a second trip to Europe (1866–1867), he exhibited two paintings at the Exposition Universelle, in which landscapes by painters of the Barbizon School attracted much attention.2Ferber 1973, 30. Although he seems not to have mentioned it, Richards probably also saw the independent pavilion set up by Gustave Courbet with more than one hundred of his paintings. Landscape suggests the influence of Courbet in its breadth and in its organic, muscular massing. Also reminiscent of Courbet is the way the hills block spatial recession in the middle distance and shift the eye upward to the complementary masses of clouds. Nonetheless, Richard’s rendering of this restricted countryside suggests the space just beyond our ken.
Despite the presence of a few animals and humans, the painting is possessed of a great stillness. With William Cullen Bryant (in “Thanatopsis”), Richards was one “who in the love/of nature holds communion/with her visible forms.” Those forms—“hills/Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun”—spoke of creation and eternity. They were “holy lessons,” wrote Richards, “stamped with such gigantic impress as if God’s own hand had drawn them there.”3Ferber 1980, 244–45 and n. 32.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.