All the saddest and wildest noises of nature are reproduced by the surf,” 19th-century painter William Trost Richards wrote in a letter. Richards’ best paintings depict depopulated seascapes with horizon lines that seem to stretch to a humbling infinity beyond the edges of the picture plane.

An air of melancholy suffuses his marine views, as if the steady long-term rhythm of the breakers simply overwhelms the merely human.

A new show at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center makes a case for reclaiming the reputation of Richards (1833–1905). His career has been obscured by interest in the more grandiose Hudson River School painters, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. Richards’ approach to mountain vistas pales next to the compositional bravura of his contemporaries; his finest works came when he turned his attention to the Atlantic sea coast. His marine-scapes—in oil and watercolor—are distinctive and compelling.

Sketches of plants and tree trunks demonstrate Richards’ attention to botanical detail. He had the eye of a scientist and followed the dictates of art critic John Ruskin, who pontificated about putting the techniques of naturalism in the service of prizing out God’s presence in the world.

Richards made more than one trip to Europe, but his views of Italy, Norway and Switzerland look conventional and placid—painted postcards. An early sketch of Sunrise in the Alps comes complete with a tiny but too-carefully placed white cross. At times, Richards indulged in overwrought dramatic set pieces; his depictions of the ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall look like they could be a backdrop for a Wagner production.

Richards spent a lot of time by himself, toting his art supplies and tramping through the Adirondacks and along desolate stretches of the New England coast. He even speaks of having to race back and forth in order to capture the hiss and roil of the surf without getting himself soaked.

That sense of engagement imbues his marine paintings with a quick, authoritative fervor. The size and media (he worked variously with watercolor and gouache on cardboard, paper and other humble grounds) don’t matter.

Even the smallest quick-handed pieces function as endless vistas. The low horizons mounted by subtly toned clouds are free of showy effects. Coastal Scene, Setting Sun uses just a hint of purple in a layer of clouds about to obscure a sliver of sun; there are no flashing rays or blinding reds. Without the small rock formation in the foreground, the scene would be nearly an abstract exercise in a narrow band of gradations of yellow, tan and damped-down blue.

The 1870 watercolor Beach at Low Tide presents an empty littoral stretch with flat sheets of water curving up the sand beneath a uniformly misty sky marked only by a distant layer of fog suffused with traces of light violet. The sense of remoteness is compounded in an 1890s oil Surf Breaking on Rocks, which could be a coastline or just an islet far at sea. The froth is beautifully rendered, flicking against the rock faces.

The Cantor show depends largely on Richards’ smallest pieces—some of them so casual that they are domesticated by splatters, stains, handwritten notes on color and even torn corners. But the apotheosis of what Richards was striving for is seen in the exhibit’s one large oil on canvas, Seascape. The palest of piled-up clouds hover above a low horizon line. The colors of the sea below and sky above transition in gentle steps.

Far, far to the left, one can discern the minute sails of a three-master—man’s endeavors nearly at the vanishing point in the scheme of nature. The eye can sweep to the right to pick up in the very foreground, where the water kisses the sand, a few humble clamshells protruding. Although he would no doubt reject the imputation of such an exalted stance, here, Richards’ vision seems God-like in its scope.

William Trost Richards: True to Nature
Through Sept. 26
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford