Richardt's Redwoods: Earth Day and a Hudson River School Painter

Untitled, c. 1885
Ferdinand Richardt (American, [b. Demark] 1819-1895)
Oil on canvas; 71 1/4 x 47 3/4 x 5 in.
Anonymous Gift
"Suddenly, from behind the rim of the Moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home."
— Edgar Mitchell, Apollo Astronaut

Event brochure for a 1970 program held at the
Bowers Museum shortly after the first Earth Day
Earth, how could a human possibly understand beauty outside of its context? Save for all but the handful of us who have ventured out into space, everything we have ever experienced happened on this verdant rock. The first Earth Day in 1970 was born as a response to environmental catastrophes: daily smog warnings in Los Angeles, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, the onset of DDT’s silent spring, and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire. But Earth Day is as reflective as it is reactionary; the day is a reminder that environmentalists are trying to preserve something beautiful. It is no coincidence that the very same decade brought us the first photographs of our lonely, almost indescribably striking planet in an ocean of nothingness, also brought us Earth Day. This blog post celebrates the occasion by looking at a painting by Ferdinand Richardt, an artist from a loosely-associated group whose goal was to capture America’s natural beauty. 

The first rumblings of conservationism in America date back much earlier than the 1960s and ‘70s, with the early 19th Century seeing a major movement by American artists to capture the beautiful scenic landscapes of North America. Though artists approached this end in all manner of ways, perhaps the most important of these movements was one unofficially founded by Thomas Cole in 1825: The Hudson River School, named for the Hudson River Valley which became the locus of the nature scenes painted by these artists. Notable names including Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and our own Ferdinand Richardt are staples of fine art museums today. These painters tended to have similar styles, but despite this each maintained subtly stylistic autonomy with their approach to finding locations, the degree to which their paintings were untouched by signs of man, and how affected a painting’s colors were. The latter of which became the most important aspect for painters like Bierstadt and Church, in addition to bringing incredibly beautiful scenes of nature to rapidly industrializing cities like New York, wildly colorful and ostentatious sunsets tended to sell fantastically. Even well into the age where scenic panoramas could be captured in true-to-life photographic snapshots, these artists managed to set themselves apart by evoking deep emotion, a dimension which photography would not reach for many years. 

Photograph of Ferdinand Richardt c. 1860,
from the Royal Library, Copenhagen
Ferdinand Richardt, born in 1819, was an artist born in Denmark who specialized in paintings and lithographs. Richardt first came over to America in 1855 to work on a commissioned painting of the Niagara Falls by William Vanderbilt and immediately fell in love with America’s untamed landscapes. He painted and drew his way across the United States, eventually settling in San Francisco, California around 1875. Over the course of his travels, he crafted well over 1000 renderings in pencil and paint of America’s natural wonders. Mount Washington, the Catskill Mountains, and Yosemite are just a few of the many locales he painted. Like the rest of his fellows in the Hudson River School, Richardt relied heavily on romanticism to depict the beauty of nature. 

This untitled work by Richardt was painted somewhere near San Francisco, California’s redwood groves in 1885. Though lacking the vibrancy of many of the works from this period, Richardt’s painting of a redwood grove and two deer pausing momentarily in a stream is a freeze-frame of a quiet, introspective moment of nature. Nothing in this painting hints at anthropogenic influence. Instead we are presented with a celebration of nature. The subtle ways in which Richardt uses romanticism, to a lesser extent the color palette, but more the backlighting of the painting’s two deer and using a buck and doe couple, almost assure that the painting will resonate with the 19th Century viewer. Additionally, like many of the paintings of this time, Richard’s untitled work is large, standing at almost 6’. Even at this height the painting just barely does justice to the scale of the redwood trees which are easily ten times the height. In its roundabout way this small scene of nature is a microcosm of the entire planet, something beautiful enough to be worth fighting to protect.
Close-up of 40722
While we do certainly still have lush redwood groves in California, many of the places depicted in the artworks of Hudson River School painters have not been so fortunate. Suburbs stretch from cities, create new city centers, and more suburbs stretch outwards from them. Forests are bought and turned into housing developments, strip malls and big-box stores. This Earth Day take a moment to contemplate how important this planet’s nature is, as a marble floating in space and as the sum of every one of its painted landscapes.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Monday, 30 March 2020

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