Details of Grandeur: How the Pre-raphaelites Influenced American Landscape Painting

Open Access
Wells, Lindsay Foertsch
Area of Honors:
Art History
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Joyce Henri Robinson, Thesis Supervisor
  • Brian A Curran, Honors Advisor
  • Pre-Raphaelite
  • Nineteenth Century
  • American Art
  • Landscape
  • William Trost Richards
  • John Ruskin
The British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in the spirit of John Ruskin, strove to paint detailed and heartfelt works of art, with subject matter faithfully recorded from nature. After Ruskinian and Pre-Raphaelite influences crossed the Atlantic in the 1850s, a trend toward naturalism focused on botanical detail emerged in American art. While the Pre-Raphaelites became famous in England for their literary paintings, their American admirers were inspired to paint pure landscapes lacking almost all narrative and figural references. The following thesis explores why this mid-century phenomenon occurred. Pre-Raphaelite techniques were applied to American landscape painting because of the growing interest of artists during the nineteenth century in American scenery. Pre-Raphaelite publications and exhibitions in the United States also impacted how American artists appropriated Pre-Raphaelitism. The nature-centric trajectory of this movement may be more deeply understood through an examination of the career of William Trost Richards, whose landscapes were praised as quintessential examples of Pre-Raphaelite work. I will argue that exposure to Pre-Raphaelitism led Richards, who early on developed a great interest in nature, to paint meticulous compositions such as The Forest (1868), in which every inch of flora on the canvas is defined with observed precision and clarity. At the close of the nineteenth century, Pre-Raphaelitism was attacked by critics as time consuming and uninspired, which plunged the accomplishments of the American Pre-Raphaelites into obscurity for many decades.