Painter. An expert draftsman who produced masterful watercolors as well as oils, he specialized in landscapes and maritime scenes. Influenced in his early development by prevailing Hudson River School and luminist tastes, in the 1860s he numbered among the most accomplished artists practicing the extremely detailed realism of American Pre-Raphaelitism. Later his brushwork became somewhat looser, but he never relinquished his commitment to scrupulously accurate observation. Born in Philadelphia, Richards remained a resident of the area for most of his life. As a teenager he was employed as a designer and illustrator at an ornamental metalwork firm, while concurrently studying with Paul Weber. He also may have attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1855 he departed for Europe. During a year abroad, he worked in Düsseldorf for several months and toured the Continent. He returned to Europe on several occasions. In 1866–67 in London he first observed at firsthand J. M. W. Turner's work, which he had long admired, while between 1878 and 1880 he produced vigorous renditions of the rocks and surf along the English coast, particularly in Cornwall. Prompted by exposure to British Victorian painting as well as by English critic John Ruskin's writings endorsing truth to nature, in the late 1850s Richards embarked on obsessively detailed yet still freshly vibrant botanical and geological studies in the spirit of Pre-Raphaelitism. In the mid-1860s he began to turn away from other scenic northeast locales to explore the coastal subjects in which he later specialized. At the same time, he increasingly employed watercolor to capture precise effects of atmosphere and sea. Around 1870, large, highly finished exhibition watercolors became a mainstay of his practice, and he was soon regarded among the foremost American specialists in the medium. Richards's coastal views record the Atlantic seaboard from New Jersey to Maine, but he was particularly partial to the vicinity of Newport, Rhode Island, and nearby Narragansett Bay. He first visited there in 1874. Following several subsequent sojourns, he built a summer house on Conanicut Island in 1882. After 1890 he lived permanently in Newport. Richards characteristically combined closely observed detail with an expansive sweep of space. In marine views, he unerringly registered the transient insubstantiality of the ever-changing sea and sky, usually in contrast with immutable, rocky shores. Although Richards commonly worked near popular seashore retreats, his paintings rarely convey the carefree gaiety associated with vacations. Usually devoid of human presence, his intimate yet majestic meditations suggest the ceaselessness of natural processes, the vastness of the universe, and the insignificance of individuals.
Richards's daughter, Anna Richards Brewster (1870–1952) painted landscapes, urban views, portraits, and other subjects in pastel and watercolor, as well as oil. Born in Philadelphia and trained in New York and Paris, she did much of her most appealing work during a subsequent ten-year residency in England. Her views of London and other localities abroad combine softly atmospheric effects with recognizable landmarks and other clearly delineated features. In 1905 she married William Tenney Brewster, an English professor. They settled in the New York suburb of Scarsdale, summered at the Rhode Island shore, and traveled to varied destinations that became subjects of her art.