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Summer Clouds

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Summer Clouds

Artist: William Trost Richards (American, 1833 - 1905)

Date: 1883
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original 1880s-style frame
Framed: 37 3/4 x 51 5/8 x 4 7/8in. (95.9 x 131.1 x 12.4cm)
Overall: 23 1/8 x 37in. (58.7 x 94cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Wm. T. Richards 1883'
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 93
Text Entries

By 1854 William Trost Richards was active in Philadelphia as a landscape painter, a subject that preoccupied him until the late 1860s when a series of summer sojourns on the northeastern seashore turned his attention to coastal motifs as well. During the 1870s he established himself as a major painter of marine themes in both the oil and watercolor medium. While visual and stylistic parallels link his work to that of his contemporaries such as Francis A. Silva and Alfred T. Bricher, Richards’s particular contribution to American marine painting was noted and acknowledged in 1880 by Samuel G.W. Benjamin in his influential survey, Art in America:

Still another aspect of our scenery has been reproduced with fidelity by W T Richards of Philadelphia. We refer to the long reaches of silvery shore and the sand-dunes which are characteristic of many parts of our Atlantic coast . . . in his beach effects, Mr. Richards maintains an important position; and if slightly mannered, has yet developed a style of subject and treatment which very effectively represents certain distinguishing features of our solemn coasts.(1)

This passage, which aptly described the visual elements of Summer Clouds, identified a theme—long flat stretches of sand washed by a procession of rolling breakers under a cloudy but luminous sky—which had long been a favorite of the artist’s, inspired by his travels to the beaches of New Jersey beginning about 1870. Summer Clouds represents, in fact, what was and for many still is the quintessential Richards marine. On the rectangular canvas of panoramic format, the artist devised a composition that appears to be virtually all water and sky but for a wedge of sand at the right dotted with shells and other beach debris. Waves roll in from the left, and a line of breakers stretches into the distance meeting the vanishing point of the beach at the extreme right and establishing a ‘dynamic tension as the eye is pulled rapidly along the waves only to be checked by the vertical canvas edge locking into the firm line of the distant horizon. The painting thus consists essentially of two nearly equal zones divided by a razor-sharp horizon firmly containing the restless sea below, while the subtle drama of the sky is played out above by varied cloud forms, which radiate the glowing core of light that unifies the composition. Water and wet sand are active as reflectors of the light from the sky, establishing a harmony of subdued but pervasive light: the “silvery shore” much admired by Benjamin and other nineteenth-century critics and patrons. Early in 1883, Richards received one of his most important commissions from the Corcoran Gallery of Art for the large painting On the Coast of New Jersey, which depicts this same favorite theme.(2) Summer Clouds, painted that same year, is similar both in composition and treatment, and represents one in the series of smaller canvases surely inspired by the critical success and popularity of the Corcoran commission.(3)


1. Samuel G.W. Benjamin, Art in America: A Critical and Historical Sketch (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880), p. 75.

2. Linda S. Ferber, William Trost Richards (1833- 1905): American Landscape and Marine Painter (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1980), pp. 356-58.

3. The Corcoran curator William MacLeod wrote to the artist on May 14, 1883: “It gives me pleasure to state that your picture gives entire satisfaction to the Committee, to the Trustees & Mr. Corcoran; and no picture has been brought here, more admired by the public. It is now on exhibition.” William T. Richards Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., as quoted in Ferber, Richards, p. 383, n. 41.


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