William R. Valerio (left), the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of Woodmere, and conservator Steven Erisoty inspect William Trost Richard’s “On a Cornish Coast.”

William R. Valerio (left), the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of Woodmere, and conservator Steven Erisoty inspect William Trost Richard’s “On a Cornish Coast.”

by William R. Valerio

The works of art in a museum collection sometimes take a vacation! For example, Woodmere’s much loved “Sweet Reflections” (1886), a great favorite of our visitors, was recently packed up and loaned to the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York for an exhibition, “Strut: The Peacock and Beauty in Art” (October 11, 2014 – January 18, 2015). Its companion on the journey up north was Peter Paone’s great self-portrait as a peacock, “Peacock” (2003), recently shown at Woodmere and also on loan to the exhibition.

While it is great for our paintings to be our ambassadors, representing us on the walls of distant museums, we must then confront the question: what to hang in its place? Even more specifically: what might be the opportunity of the moment? Woodmere has many terrific paintings in storage that we would like to show more frequently, but which painting would feel right in our historic Founder’s Gallery? What would be of interest to our visitors right now?

Once we stumbled upon the answer, it seemed obvious. We are very pleased to have placed on view William Trost Richard’s “On a Cornish Coast” (1883). With the exhibition “Schofield: International Impressionist” being shown in our Kuch and Del Bueno galleries, the Cornish coast is abundantly present as one of the Impressionist artist’s favored subjects. Almost continuously from the early years of the twentieth century through his death in 1944, Schofield painted the northern and southern coast of Cornwall. He loved its great cliffs and dramatic oceans, stone cottages, and quaint harbors. Richards visited Cornwall in the mid-1880s and was inspired to create “On A Cornish Coast” and several other such views.

Schofield and Richards were both local. Schofield lived in Chestnut Hill and Richards lived in Mount Airy; they both attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and as artists they are barely separated by a generation. However, their approaches to the Cornish coast are worlds apart. Schofield’s brushwork is direct and immediate, with vibrant color that sometimes seems squeezed straight from the tube right onto the canvas. With impressionism, the vitality of the artist’s gesture is the main attraction.

Many of you will know that I am crazy for Schofield’s paintings, but how wonderfully different it is to enjoy William Trost Richard’s more traditionally romantic interpretation of the similar subject. The scale of his depiction of the great stone cliffs landscape is enormous; a flock of tiny gulls gives definition to the magnitude of the cliffs. Rock, water and sky are caressed by a permeating golden light. Distant formations of the cliffs are rendered as ghosts by the intervening substance of the atmosphere. Richards carefully built his painting through a calculated layering of transparent paint and veils of glaze. If Schofield’s paintings impress us with the immediacy of his hand, Richards’ impress us exactly because his hand is absent. The painting is magical because we can’t imagine how a mere mortal artist could have created such a complexity of luminous effects.

So far, so good, and we are very pleased to have the Richards painting on view. However, a final element in the serendipitous story must be described. Sometimes you don’t know you have a problem until you see it in broad daylight. The Richards painting had seemed just fine when it was hanging on its storage rack. However, although it is acceptable for viewing now, it needs some help. My good friend, the painting conservator Steven Erisoty, confirmed what I thought might be the case: On A Cornish Coast suffers from a protective glaze that has discolored over time. To the naked eye, a yellow film appears to be evenly dispersed across the surface of the canvas. Steven, looking through his special conservators magnifying OptiVisor could see that what we saw as a yellow film is actually discolored varnish and repainting. With the luminous original gold frame, Erisoty said, “It’s supposed to be a jewel in a setting and the varnish has just washed everything out, taken away its depth.”

Rest assured: this is normal and we have nothing to worry about. Richards glazed his paintings to protect his delicate surfaces from the ravages of dirt and grime. He knew well that eventually his protective glaze would turn bad and need replacing. And so, when “Sweet Reflections” returns from her vacation in Yonkers, the William Trost Richards will make a trip to the painting hospital —Steven’s conservation studio — for a cleaning. Be sure to see it now, so you can really enjoy the impact of its transformation.