Published: September 17, 2007
An influential figure in American art from his early work as the country’s best engraver through his leadership of the Hudson River School of painting until his death at age 90, Asher B. Durand (1796‱886) was both an intellectual and visual force. The acknowledged dean of American landscapists, his poetic forest interiors and sweeping pastoral scenes and his work as president of the National Academy of Design helped set the tone for works that celebrated the relationship of Americans to nature and the wilderness.
Setting American views of the natural world apart from European traditions, Durand defined an American sensibility to the land and evolved a vertical format for depicting it. His influence hastened the decline of history painting in the mid-Nineteenth Century and the ascendancy of landscape paintings as serious works of art.
In spite of all the achievements of this urbane and technically gifted painter, his artwork and his key role in the development of American art have been overlooked in recent years. Fortunately, a full-fledged Durand revival is underway.
A spate of current exhibitions, headed by “Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape,” on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) through January 8, should resurrect appreciation for his oeuvre and achievements. Organized for the Brooklyn Museum (where it opened) by Linda S. Ferber, now vice president and director of the museum division of the New-York Historical Society, this first Durand retrospective in 35 years comprises nearly 60 engravings, portraits and, most importantly, some of the most beautiful and well-known Nineteenth Century American landscape paintings.
Complementary exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, and Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, further illuminate Durand’s accomplishments.
A native of New Jersey, Durand started out as an engraver. In 1823, he won such admiration for his engraving after John Trumbull’s “The Declaration of Independence” that he was considered America’s finest engraver. After a brief period painting portraits of prominent political and social figures, an 1837 sketching sojourn in the Adirondacks with his friend and Hudson River School leader Thomas Cole prompted Durand to focus on landscape art.
After Cole’s death in 1848, Durand became the nation’s leading landscape painter and head of the Hudson River School. He provided crucial leadership as president of the prestigious National Academy, 1845‱861.
Arguably more important than his paintings was Durand’s influence, both as an example of the dedicated artist and as a theorist, on the second generation of the Hudson River School. His nine “Letters on Landscape Painting,” printed in the periodical founded by his son John, The Crayon, in 1855, codified principles of landscape painting, stressing the use of drawings, study and geology, and the presence of God in nature. Durand revered nature, seeing in it the “visible works of God.” His views, highly influential in their day, are significant reflections of mid-Nineteenth Century American attitudes.
Durand’s drawings and oil sketches during frequent expeditions to the Catskills, Adirondacks and White Mountains led to paintings that range from panoramic vistas to intimate forest interiors to depictions of individual trees to vignettes of hallowed landmarks like Kaaterskill Falls. He was, he said, hooked on “the virgin charms of our native land.”
Nevertheless, he spent 1840-1841 traveling extensively in Europe, sketching from nature and copying Old Masters.
Durand’s early landscape style, derived from the example of Frenchman Claude Lorrain, featured trees as framing devices and sought to express a balance between man and nature.
Finding the natural world “fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation,” Durand exercised his imagination only to the extent of idealizing the real or of depicting moments of perfection in which flora, fauna and land reveal their most beautiful and typical qualities. An eternal optimist, he stressed sunlight and effulgent foliage in meticulously rendered scenes of humans and nature existing in harmony.
Durand was an early, forceful advocate of sketching outdoors. In the late 1840s, distinctions between plein air sketches for an artist’s personal use and large-scale finished landscapes for public display eroded. Influenced by the naturalistic approach to landscape and precise style advocated by Englishman John Ruskin, Durand gradually shifted to detailed, accurate views of nature, descriptive of the actual look of settings and with emphasis on mood and sentiment. Thereafter, wilderness replaced rural scenes, inviting viewers to contemplate the sublime grandeur of the natural world, as well as its beauty and tranquility. Durand’s progressive attitude, which aligned him with other proponents of realism, lends a modern sensibility to his work.
“Durand captured the sublime grandeur of the American landscape at a time when national identity was tied to depictions of these regions,” says Eleanor Jones Harvey, chief curator at SAAM. “Both his vibrant painted sketches and his polished studio paintings embody the American search for self-knowledge and our restless exploration of the land.”
Through his paintings and writings, Durand †along with Frederic E. Church †led younger painters, especially John F. Kensett and Jasper Cropsey, away from the dramatic, moralizing passions of Cole toward a more straightforward realism and close observation of nature’s quieter moments.
In recent years Durand’s name has resurfaced, primarily as painter of “Kindred Spirits,” 1849, the enduringly nostalgic image of writer William Cullen Bryant and the recently deceased Cole standing on a ledge amidst the glorious scenery of the Catskill Mountains. It is the centerpiece of the exhibition.
“Kindred Spirits” was commissioned by New York businessman and patron Jonathan Sturges as a gift to Bryant, who had delivered a moving eulogy to Cole at the National Academy of Design in 1848.
The bonds among Bryant, Cole and Durand were close †they belonged to the same social clubs, knew the same people, traveled together, corresponded and conversed at length and bought each other’s works. Above all, they shared a vision of nature as a moral and spiritual force. Bryant sang its praises in poetry and prose; Cole and Durand paid tribute in art.
The crisp, realistic “Kindred Spirits” represented an idealized tribute to American nature, as well as the artist’s heartfelt homage to two leaders in launching the Hudson River School as America’s first major art movement. It helped establish Durand’s standing as America’s leading landscapist.
The painting was famously sold two years ago for $35 million by the New York Public Library to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art she is building in Arkansas.
Another standout is SAAM’s “Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York,” 1848, a fine example of Durand’s pastoral work. Celebrating the bucolic, fertile American landscape, two figures bend to pick berries, suggesting harmony between man and nature. A young woman standing atop a rock gazing into the distance encourages viewers to look in wonder across the meadows and groves to the softly contoured mountains on the horizon.
“That picture is ideal,” observed Durand, “whose component parts are representative of the utmost perfection of nature.” Indeed, the beauty of the scene, enveloped in a divinely charged light and warm atmospheric haze, is palpable. The result of a year of painstaking sketching in Upstate New York, “Dover Plains” was turned into an engraving and widely distributed by the American-Art Union, further promoting appreciation for the image.
The expansive scene in “Dover Plains,” considered a radical compositional departure at the time, was followed by Durand paintings featuring similar vistas, including “Landscape †Composition in the Catskills,” 1848; the “Harvest in the Wilderness,” 1855, and “Kaaterskill Clove,” 1866. In the latter panorama, writes Ferber in the catalog, “Durand demonstrated not only the mastery of atmospheric perspective for which he had long been justly famous but also the capacity to invent a fresh interpretation of an iconic subject on a grand scale.”
Other notable works in the exhibition include “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife and Daughter,” 1834, and a sensitive likeness of “Thomas Cole,” circa 1837, painted at the peak of Durand’s work as a portrait painter.
Standouts among Durand’s intimate forest interiors, with their careful attention to accurate depictions of trees, foliage and rocks, include “Beeches,” 1945, and “In the Woods,” 1855, a landmark canvas composed from Catskills oil studies that places the viewer at the center of a primeval forest. The latter represents one of the artist’s most significant contributions to American landscape vocabulary.
Commissioned by a prominent New York collector, “White Mountain Scenery, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire,” 1857, is a classic panoramic view of the White Mountains.
Also of interest are a selection of Durand’s “Studies from Nature,” vignettes depicting his favorite sketching sites, such as the Catskills and Stratton Notch, Vt.
Durand slowed down toward the end of his long life, stopping painting in 1878 and dying in 1886 in his hometown of Maplewood, N.J.
A complementary exhibition at the venerable National Academy Museum through January 6, “Asher B. Durand (1796‱886), Dean of American Landscape,” features paintings by the longtime president of the academy, as well as works by such colleagues as Albert Bierstadt, Church, George Inness and Thomas Moran, some drawn from the Berkshire Museum.
Standouts include Durand canvases running the gamut from allegorical works like his celebrated engraving of “Ariadne,” 1835, “The Morning of Life” and “The Evening of Life,” both 1840, to views of nature, such as “Landscape with Rocks and Trees,” circa 1845.
There is a stalwart marble bust of Durand by Henry Kirke Brown, dating to 1847, and a fine portrait by Durand of Lewis P. Clover. This exhibition demonstrates both Durand’s range of achievements and his influence on other artists.
Also useful is “Asher B. Durand: Intimate Observations,” on view at Cedar Grove: The Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y., through October 28.
Together, these shows, led by the “Kindred Spirits” retrospective, document Durand’s skills as engraver, portraitist and landscape painter and remind us what a vital role he played in the development of American art.
After closing in Washington, “Kindred Spirits” travels to the San Diego Museum of Art, February 2⁁pril 27.
The full-color, 256-page catalog, with essays by Ferber, art curator Barbara Dayer Gallati and art historian Kenneth T. Jackson, is co-published by the Brooklyn Museum and D Giles Limited; it is available for $55 (hardcover) and $39.95 (softcover.)
Also available is the biography, The Life and Times of Asher B. Durand, written by his son, John Durand, and first published in 1894. A paperback edition, published this year by Black Dome Press in Hensonville, N.Y., is $17.95.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is at Eighth and F Streets NW. For information, 202-633-7970 or www.americanart.si.edu .
The National Academy of Design Museum is at 1083 Fifth Avenue, New York City. For information, 212-369-4880 or www.nationalacademy.org .
Cedar Grove: The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is at 218 Spring Street in Catskill, N.Y. For information, 518-943-7465 or www.thomascole.org .
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