Mackerel Cove, Jamestown, Rhode Island from 1894 is among William Trost Richards' grandest landscapes, exemplary of his masterfully refined and exquisite renditions of nineteenth century America that are exceptionally articulate visions of nature. Richards traveled widely along the Eastern seaboard, executing vivid coastal landscapes and seascapes that celebrate their vast beauty. In this work, painted near his home in Newport, Rhode Island, Richards combines his Pre-Raphaelite style of intricate detail and fidelity to nature with his later works composed of expansive seascapes. Manifested in Mackerel Cove, Jamestown, Rhode Island, Richards' compositions complemented by the artist's masterful use of light and color are among the best conceived of the nineteenth century.
Richards was passionate about literature and his choice of subject matter was most likely influenced by transcendentalist Henry Thoreau's Walden, published in 1854. "Largely self-taught, and at work by the age of seventeen as a commercial draftsman, he was nevertheless steeped in the nature worship of the period and longed to devote himself to American scenery. Richards was of literary bent. His essays and letters of the early 1850s show him familiar with the romantic landscape rhetoric, delighting in long and elaborate descriptions and relishing appropriate emotional and poetic associations." (L.S. Ferber, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, New York, 1987, p. 312)
Although an admirer of Thomas Cole and Jasper Francis Cropsey, in the 1860s Richards veered from the Hudson River School and became a follower of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics of English critic John Ruskin. American artists who followed Ruskin's call for a faithfulness to nature formed the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, to which Richards was elected in 1863. His early Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the 1850s and 1860s exhibit the artist's careful rendering of detail and reverence to nature. "[Henry] Tuckerman speaks of Richards as putting into practice the extreme theories of the Pre-Raphaelites, stating that his leaves, grasses, grain-stalks, weeds, stones and flowers were so finished that 'we seem not to be looking at a distant prospect, but lying on the ground with herbage and blossom directly under our eyes.'" (W.H. Gerdts, R. Burke, American Still-Life Painting, New York, 1971, p. 120)
Although his subject matter changed from land to seascapes, Richards' style always retained elements of his early Pre-Raphaelite style, in this work, retaining his attention to detail to express his reverence of the expansive ocean. His remarkable accuracy was accomplished through intense study on site. His son stated that Richards "stood for hours...with folded arms, studying the motion of the sea, until people thought him insane. After days of gazing, he made pencil notes of the action of the water." (as quoted in C.B. Ferguson, William Trost Richards: "He Knew the Sea," New Britain, Connecticut, 1973, p. 4) Once in his studio, he worked over the surfaces with careful precision. By the time he was exhibiting in the early 1860s, critics praised his works for their veracity to the New England shorelines.
In the present work, Richards demonstrates his unparalleled technical proficiency by rendering a scene with stunningly accurate detail. In the painting's panoramic view of the coastal town of Jamestown, Rhode Island, Richards creates curving, sweeping lines leading the viewer from the figures and sailboat at lower right to the distant landscape of Newport at left. The artist has ordered the composition with clear divisions of space reaching back to the horizon and beyond. The long grasses create the foreground, the winding body of water composes the middle ground and the sky makes up the background. These variously graduated forms extend the space into the distance, rendering the unending beauty of the landscape. He has meticulously and sharply rendered the scene in a horizontal pattern, emphasizing the expansiveness of the landscape.
The overall composition of Mackerel Cove, Jamestown, Rhode Island evokes a feeling of transcendence and suggests equilibrium between sky and land, as well as atmosphere and light. In the work, Richards uses an aerial perspective and finely paints the figures and buildings to contrast with the vast landscape, effectively emphasizing the magnificence of the landscape he so revered. This quiet scene conveys a feeling of solitude and peace that pervades Richards' best work.
With its spectacular light, color and details, Mackerel Cove, Jamestown, Rhode Island demonstrates Richards' skill as he successfully combines the sky and land in a beautiful, harmonious and flawless composition.