American Art · Art That Inspires Me

At Atlantic City by William Trost Richards

At Atlantic City by William Trost Richards
William Trost Richards, At Atlantic City, 1877. Private collection. Photo via the-athenaeum.org.

I don’t often feature non-famous art if I haven’t seen it in person. However, I can’t get this painting out of my head. I discovered it while choosing works for my Luminist Seascapes article on DailyArt Magazine, but it wasn’t characteristically Luminist enough to include. (You can learn more about the Luminists, a later generation of Hudson River School painters with a distinct style, at the link above.)

I’m really transfixed by the colors, which seem almost too heightened and perfect to be true. Parts of the scene shine as though the painting were made on glass. The water and clouds are so very blue, and the way they contrast with the small areas of warm sunlight is beautiful. The foreground is fairly dark, but it’s a warm darkness instead of a threatening one. The tall trees and Thomas Cole-like blasted tree stump in the foreground are in the shadows; they ground the composition and make the water and sky stand out even more. I love that you have to look through the trees to see the sky and water in the distance. It’s an unexpected way to compose this scene, especially for a Luminist who usually put water and sky center stage. Overall, this painting seems to depict an otherworldly fairyland… except it definitely doesn’t.

Atlantic City NJ boardwalk 1910s postcard
By the 1910s, Atlantic City looked quite different. “A Mile Straightaway Stretch of the World-famous Atlantic City Boardwalk.” Published by Chilton Company, Phila., Pa., U.S.A. 4. c. 1913-1916. (Public Domain)

In fact, this painting is set in Atlantic City, a resort and casino town on the New Jersey shore. It’s like Las Vegas on the beach, except less glamorous. I’ve been there a few times, and as you can probably imagine, present-day Atlantic City is nothing like Richards’s painting. It’s full of flashy hotels and casinos, theatres, amusement park attractions, and endless boardwalk. According to the history on Atlantic City’s official website, tourists started coming there in the 1850s, but it took until the end of the century to became a major entertainment destination. That’s probably why it was still so undeveloped in Richards’s 1877 painting.

This familiarity-but-not is one of the things I love about Hudson River School paintings. Living in the American northeast, I’m familiar with many of the places depicted in HRS paintings, but they rarely look anything like they do in the paintings. While the comparison can be downright depressing, I really enjoy knowing that things haven’t always been the way they are today. These paintings provide a secret history of places most people in my area take for granted.

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