Among the blue hairs and Buicks, I completed my annual Memorial Day flower ritual at the Salt Lake City Cemetery this past weekend. While wandering about looking for water, my attention shifted to family names on many of the head stones: Cannon, Young, Smith, Kimball, and Moyle (sorry—had to include my kin in there some place). The other predominant name that shows up a lot is Richards.
Levi Greene Richards was born into a pioneer family in 1878 but later changed his first name to just “Lee” for, as he said, “professional reasons.” That Lee grew up in “The Block” with other artistic pals like Mahonri Young, Alma B. Wright, and Jack Sears, is significant. Their mutual encouragement strengthened one another and they also shared a superb teacher—J.T. Harwood—who assisted them with their dreams and served as a living example that the pursuit of art was honorable and achievable in the Great Basin. Although Young would spend much of his professional career outside the region (as did Jack Sears), and Wright would become an expatriate in France, Richards remained in the Salt Lake area.
Barbara Ostler, who wrote her thesis and subsequent book about Richards, suggested that Richards is best known for his portraits, particularly of LDS Church officials, but he was additionally a gifted landscapist, and muralist. Examine any Richards landscape and you will observe a well-composed, balanced, and aesthetically-pleasing work.
Richards’ early training from Harwood was boosted by his numerous trips to Paris where he studied, as was the tradition of second generation Utah artists, at the Academie Julian. Later, he qualified for acceptance into the state-sponsored Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he studied at the atelier of famed portraitist, Leon Bonnat.
Like with Harwood, Willard Clawson, Lewis Ramsey, and Henri Moser, the explosive effects of post impressionism, expressionism, and even Fauvism would not be lost on young Utah talents like Richards. Richards excelled in his Parisian studies in the early 1900s where he exhibited at both the prestigious Salon de la Societe des Artistes Francais, and the Salon d’Automne (1903). Two years later, the Salon would be the site of the scandalous exhibit of Matisse’s Fauves (“wild beasts”). Richards would subsequently exhibit at and serve as a juror at the Salons of 1909 and 1920.
Richards first rented studio space at the old Dooly Building, the only Louis Sullivan-designed building in Utah, that gave way to the wrecking ball so that we could experience the wonderful architecture of the Shiloh Inn (sarcasm included). Later, to accommodate his growing LDS Church portraiture business, Richards relocated to the Templeton Building (see 15 Bytes, May 2007 edition) where his studio was adjacent to friend and long-time artist Dan Weggeland.
Although Richards was an amiable, engaging gentleman, he required of his portraiture subjects the promise of no less than twelve sittings. His eye was on detail and anyone visiting the UMFA who inspects Richards’ full-length portrait of “Jeune Fille au Sac Vert” (1904) and “After the Hunt” (1911) will readily observe the influences of Whistler and Sargent, whom Richards admired from his Paris sojourns.
Richards and his family maintained a close association with his pioneer family and the Mormon Church; however, he, like Mahonri Young, kept somewhat distant from “active Church membership,” as Ostler asserts. Whether for a Church official, other subject, landscape, or mural, Richards was never found without his trademark green painter’s smock and tie. Having lost all of his hair at an early age, Richards once tried a toupee, but quickly discarded it and made light of his baldness.
One of the unique features of Richards’ paintings was his use of an unusual combination of his initials which formed a turtle—not unlike Whistler’s use of a butterfly. Richards employed the “turtle” signature only on more personal works, utilizing his very familiar reddish-colored full signature on all other paintings.
Richards’ landscape style of the 1930s easily compares to that of associates Waldo Midgley and Henri Moser. I’d be hard pressed to identify the artist who created September Hills, 1930 (in the collection of Don and Barbara Ostler). The composition could be Midgley’s, LeConte Stewart’s, Moser’s, or any number of contemporary Utah artists, but it is an exquisite painting by Richards. “Big Cottonwood Stream,” 1932, utilizes several orange hues and punctuates the painting with two groupings of trees surrounding Big Cottonwood Creek (we former Cottonwooders say, “crick,” not “creek.”). This one is very much like numerous Moser paintings, which is not surprising since the two painted together, usually at Bear Lake. Sometimes, Richards painted with his cousin, Louise Richards Farnsworth, a glorious, underrated expressionist who will be the subject of a future column.
Richards was at home whether the canvas was large or small. He seemed especially suited for large mural work as evidenced by his work in the Utah State Capitol Building rotunda. Richards received a WPA commission for the work which reportedly paid $90 per month, likely a welcome sum for the Richards family in 1934. Next time you are in the rotunda, walk the stairs to the gallery area and look up. Richards’s works are stunning and if you notice any Richards family resemblance, it is because he used so many of his family members as models. The depictions detail such historical events in Utah as Father Escalante Discovers Utah Lake, 1776, Brigham Young and Pioneers Entering the Valley 1847, and Driving the Golden Spike 1869. Take a pair of field glasses with you when you go so that you can see some of the typical Richards detail.
Richards’ other memorable celebration in mural painting is located above the grand staircase in the Park Building at the University of Utah. This massive mural shows some of the world’s greatest scientists and inventors (Darwin, Galileo, Aristotle, among others). At the time, the 5th floor of the Park Building housed the U’s art collection, before it was relocated to the Art and Architecture Building and most recently to the UMFA building, thanks in large part to Marcia and John Price.
Richards completed his long artful career, teaching at the U of U’s art department from 1938 to 1947, instructing being a first for him and assuredly a treasure for all who received his expertise. Richards passed away on February 20, 1950, and as Ostler pointed out, “Richards often said that his idea of heaven was to have a large canvas with all the time to paint when wanted. Perhaps this is what his heaven is all about.”
Not many artists retain their same clear, balanced, and bright palette as they age, but I have never seen a poorly-composed or otherwise lacking artwork by Richards. His works can be seen in numerous public and LDS Church buildings, as well as in private collections. The market value for Richards’ artworks does nothing but increase, but even more significant is the enhanced historical and cultural value of his body of work. Regardless of the motive, when a Richards painting becomes available, I highly recommend consideration for purchase.
Tom Alder, a Salt Lake City native, left a 30-year mortgage banking career in 2009 to open Alderwood Fine Art, specializing in early Utah art. He held an MA in Art History, taught at the University of Utah, and served on various boards in the cultural community. He died in 2018.