Lee Greene Richards was born in Salt Lake City, July 27, 1878. Originally
named Levi, like his father, he changed his name to Lee, preferring that shortened
version for "professional reasons." He grew up in Salt Lake City surrounded
by artists. His grandmother, Sarah Griffith Richards, was a well-known English
watercolorist. His father, Levi W. Richards, was also a painter but did not
get much opportunity to paint because of the demands of pioneer life. He was,
however, very interested in the art world.
Lee's neighbors included George M. Ottinger, whose studio the young Richards
visited often. In addition, Mahonri Young and A. B. Wright lived on the same
block and the three artists became known as the "Twentieth Ward Group." They
were fellow students under J. T. Harwood, along with John Sears and Louise Richards.
According to Mahonri Young, Lee's academic drawings were the best of the class.
Richards claimed that Harwood so effectively taught the academic methods he
had learned at the Académie Julian that Richards learned as much from
J. T. as from any of his later teachers in Paris.
A mission for the LDS church took 18-year-old Richards to England in 1895,
where he was able to visit the British museums and see original paintings by
the old masters as well as to sketch and paint the lush English countryside.
Richards' perceptions of the English portraitists during his museum visits impressed
the young man so much that he aspired to portraiture himself.
After a visit to Paris at the end of his time in England, Lee
Greene Richards came home determined to earn enough money to go back to France
and study art.
Upon returning to Utah, he worked three years at Zions Savings Bank of Utah
before realizing his dream and returning to Paris. He studied for three years
(1901 - 1904), first at the Acadamie Julian (which had no entrance exam) and
then, after passing the rigorous entrance exam, at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts
A successful exhibition career began with the Salon des Artists Francais in
1903. In 1904, he headed the Salon list for honorable mention, becoming the
first Utah artist to receive such a distinction. Following this illustrious
beginning, his successful career continued with works exhibited by the International
Society of Painters, Sculptors and Etchers in London, Manchester, and Burnley,
England; and at the Chicago Art Institute, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine
Arts, and the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
After Richards' return to Utah in 1904, he received many commissions
for portraits due to a combination of factors, his undoubted and internationally
skill, his family connections to important LDS church and community leaders,
and the providential move of John Willard Clawson, an accomplished portraitist,
to California. In 1908, Richards married Mary Jane Eldredge, the daughter of
a well-to-do Salt Lake banker. The money Mary Jane brought to the marriage
for a long honeymoon in Paris for the newlyweds. Then in 1910, they moved back
to Utah and Lee set up a studio in the combination barn and carriage house
the back of the property, his mother-in-law's home.
Lee Greene Richards painted many portraits; for those of family and close friends
he used a less formal and looser style than for his official commissions. However,
it was his ability to capture some integral essence of the sitter that brought
him recognition in the art world. His personal philosophy of art was that art
should be firmly based in the traditions of the past but, while based on "certain
fundamental principles," it was up to each artist to find the particular adaptation
so "he may perfectly reveal himself."
Although best known for portraiture, Richards also painted still lifes, landscapes,
and murals. He often painted his children and used them as models in his murals,
the children posed in appropriate costumes. The early years of the Great Depression
saw a revival of historical and genre painting in Utah. Murals were commissioned
for the dome of the state capital building, and Richards was one of the artists
heavily involved in their completion. With a number of artists working on projects
depicting Utah heritage and culture, the number of paintings of pioneers increased.
Lee Greene Richards was one of the most active muralist and easel painters in
this regionalist phenomena.