“The Wissahickon” (1872) is a stunning painting of the picturesque creek winding between wooded banks through Fairmount Park.

by Sally Cohen

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), 128 N. Broad St., has just opened “A Mine of Beauty, Landscapes by William Trost Richards,” now on view until Dec. 30, an exhibition of small-scale watercolors by American landscape and marine painter William Trost Richards, created between 1875-1885.

Hailed in 1873 by a critic as “America’s best known watercolor painter,” William Trost Richards (1833-1905) created this series of watercolors as tokens of esteem and affection for his patron, Philadelphia collector George Whitney (1819-1885), who owned one of the city’s greatest 19th century art collections. In appreciation for the financial support that Whitney provided, Richards would include small watercolors with his weekly letters that the two men joked were “coupons” on their bond — both personal and financial.

The exhibit features popular Chestnut Hill retreats such as “The Forest” (1868), a large and detailed painting of Devil’s Pool; and “The Wissahickon” (1872), a stunning painting of the picturesque creek winding between wooded banks through Fairmount Park. “The Forest” was lent to PAFA by the Palmer Museum of Art of Penn State University, and “The Wissahickon” is courtesy of Drexel University College of Medicine.

Whitney, a hugely successful businessman whose fortune came from the manufacturing of wheels for railroad cars, acquired at least one oil painting from Richards annually from the mid-1860s until 1872, and “The Forest” was one such purchase. It thus represents Whitney’s eager support of Richards’ career and was also likely Richards’ way of repaying Whitney for funding the artist’s travel abroad in the mid-1860s, further exemplifying the close working relationship between these men.

Hailed by critics as Richards’ Pre-Raphaelite “triumph,” “The Forest” captures the deeply shaded wooded dell known as the Devil’s Pool at the confluence of the Cresheim and Wissahickon Creeks in Chestnut Hill.

“The Wissahickon” depicts another scenic passage of Wissahickon Creek, here shown as a stream winding between tree-lined banks through a thickly wooded area of Fairmount Park. Set in Germantown, where the artist lived, and not far from Whitney’s summer residence in Chestnut Hill, this detailed rendering of a popular local retreat represents the close bond between these men both socially and geographically. The luminous canvas hangs in this exhibition with its earlier, low-lit counterpart, “The Forest,” just as it once was hung in Whitney’s own 19th-century Philadelphia art gallery.

“The Forest” (1868) is a large, extraordinarily detailed painting of Devil’s Pool that clearly reveals the majesty and mystery of Wissahickon Park.

Coordinated by Curator of Historical American Art, Anna O. Marley, and accompanied by a catalogue containing more than 100 full-color images, the exhibition documents both a friendship between artist and patron that spans continents and decades and a remarkable Philadelphia landscape painter at the height of his powers.

“Whitney’s important collection was dispersed at his death; however, these watercolor gifts from Richards remained a treasured family possession,” said Marley. “Thanks to the generosity and vision of Dorrance H. Hamilton, they have now found their way back to Philadelphia, and particularly to PAFA’s collection.”

Hamilton, a Main Line heiress of the Campbell’s Soup fortune, obtained the paintings (about 200) from the Whitney family, which had them ever since George Whitney died in 1885. Exhibited in their entirety and hung alongside a selection of Richards’ large-scale works from both PAFA and select private collections, these works offer views spanning Richards’ travels from the picturesque southwest coast of England and the River Thames in London to Newport, Rhode Island.

Compelled by the shift in American landscape tastes in the 1870s from the descriptive realism of mid-century toward a more painterly and subjective approach, Richards was persuaded to embrace coastal subjects and watercolors. This decision prompted the artist’s sojourn to England in 1878 to expand his repertoire, with two summers of expeditions spent along the country’s dramatic southern coast.

Richards passed the English winters in London, preparing paintings for exhibition from myriad studies during summers along the coast. Richards’ strongest response to London seems to have occurred on the River Thames: “I am beginning to learn,” he wrote to Whitney in December, 1879, “that the Thames is the most picturesque river in the world, and I wish I could give myself up to Thames subjects alone. Even Turner has not done justice to it.”

For those who would like to learn more about the exhibition, PAFA will be conducting an “Art-at-Lunch” program every Wednesday, 12 noon to 1 p.m. that is free and open to the public. No reservations are required, and all lectures take place in the Hamilton Auditorium of the Historic Landmark Building.

For more information about the exhibit, call 215-972-2106 or visit www.pafa.org