An Unusual William Trost Richards at PAFA

Only two short blocks away from the City Hall of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) is perhaps one of the most under-rated museums in the Northeast.

Unlike the National Academy in New York City, which holds one of the most comprehensive American art collections but does not even have a permanent place for exhibition, PAFA is situated in a grand Gothic Revival building built in 1876 with plenty of exhibition space.

This was our second visit to PAFA. Compared to our first visit approximately one year ago, some paintings have been rolled in and out. In particular, the Gross Clinic, co-owned by PAFA and Philadelphia Museum of Art, was not there.

Not surprisingly, William Trost Richards, a native of Philadelphia, who was given an award by PAFA, is well represented in the museum. From their website, there are eleven in total works by Richards in the collection. When I was there, which was literally 40 minutes away from closing on Black Friday, the light was dim and some walls were buried in the gray darkness. Richards’ painting “Recruiting Station”, unfortunately, was on such a wall. Painted in the middle of the Civil War (1862) at Bethlehem, Pa, it was totally different from his realistic, almost factual paintings of woodlands in this pre-Raphaelite period.

Recruiting Station by William Trost Richards

Without this painting, Richards’ political view would be vague through his early 1860’s Ruskinian works.” Linda Ferber, in her book “Pastoral Interlude: William T. Richards in Chester County“, discussed the dense allegories of horticultural and agricultural symbolism in those close study of woodland paintings. His awareness of antebellum tensions was also indicated in his letter – “The country is in a very bad state. There is an important crisis approaching. God only knows what will follow. I have little sympathy with politics however.”

If so, Richards’ “Recruiting Station” made it clear that his political stance six years after his wrote that letter. In the painting, with an almost narrative tone, he depicted a lively scene in a recruiting station. In a bright sunny day in the wood, villagers encounter and talk perhaps about the war. Not too far, a group of new recruit solders are walking out of the shade. The most dominating object is the oversized flag hanging in the middle ground. Its striking colors pop out of deep greenery.

Knowing Richards as a painter who possessed the great prowess to render objects with exactness and full details, I was confident that the number of stars in the flag must be correct. (Imagine counting the stars on one of Childe Hassam’s flag paintings!) In a recent trip to the Theta antiques show, Jeff Bridgeman, the antique flag dealer, discussed some flags made in France during the civil war period had the wrong number of stars as the makers would not pay attention to such nuance.

Richards, regardless of his meticulous rendering of the wooded interior, understood the emblematic weight of the flag, echoing those faceless solders, who would serve and sacrifice the nation, made no mistake of accuracy in detail. What he painted was a flag in the design of Old Glory. In 1861, one star was added to the existing 33 stars, representing Kansas, bringing the total number of stars to 34. There were thirteen stripes representing the thirteen original colonies. The flag would be incorrect one year after this painting as the 35th star representing West Virginia was added making each of five rows having exactly seven stars.

“Recruiting Station” also differs in perspective compared to his typical pre-Raphaelite paintings in the same period. Unlike the close-up view or worm-eye view of the fauna wonders, he picked a slightly higher vantage point, with certain distance away from the actual scene. Compared to the genre paintings by Mount, which elicits human’s senses by staging the scene upfront, the aloofness that Richards adopted seems to indicate that his view of artist’s role in the war: supportive, nevertheless distancing from the actual involvement. In this serene picture, the villagers quietly see off the new recruit solders as if with the same restrain of the painter himself. In between the two groups, the water is boiling and someone must stay to tend the fire. Thus in such a subtle way, Richards tells his own anxiety in the turmoil of the civil war, his firm stance in the political party and perhaps his belief in each citizen’s own tangible and intangible values toward the union, including his own.

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