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"Heeding the Call of Nature: Asher Brown Durand's Communion with the American Landscape"

Lee A. Vedder

Luce Curatorial Fellow in American Art [1]


The external appearance of this our dwelling-place, apart from its wondrous structure and functions that minister to our well-being, is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning.... Go not abroad then in search of material for the exercise of your pencil, while the virgin charms of our native land have claims on your deepest affections.
Asher Brown Durand, "Letters on Landscape Painting," 1855


As one of the nation's great museum repositories of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, the New-York Historical Society has no equal when it comes to the extraordinary depth and richness of its holdings of original art works by Asher Brown Durand (1795-1886), who, together with his mentor Thomas Cole (1801-1848), played a leading role in establishing the renowned Hudson River School (Figs. 1-2). The Durand collection, most of which was donated to the Society by the artist's family between 1903 and 1935, features over 500 catalogued art works, including landscape paintings, portraits, historical and genre scenes, plein-air oil sketches, drawings, sketchbooks, photographs, and an extensive collection of the artist's engraved prints. Indeed, nowhere else in the world is the entire trajectory of Durand's accomplished career as an artist represented more comprehensively and in such vivid and vast detail. [2] Through selected works on canvas and paper in the Society's collection, this essay explores the evolution of Durand's artistic development, most particularly his communion with the American landscape, and the ground-breaking role he played, following the death of Thomas Cole, in furthering the artistic development of the Hudson River School aesthetic. [3]

Born in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood), New Jersey in 1796, Durand began his career as a fine art and commercial engraver, enjoying considerable success producing banknotes, book and magazine illustrations, portraits, and copies of other artists' works (Figs 3-5). [4] In the early 1820s, following a five-year apprenticeship with the Newark engraver Peter Maverick, he established himself as one of the country's most accomplished engravers with a commission from the American artist, John Trumbull, to engrave his well-known painting, The Declaration of Independence (1786-95), an enlargement of which the painter had recently executed for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol (1817-1818)(Fig. 6). Riding high on his success, Durand entered into a number of printmaking ventures during the 1820s and early 1830s, including one with his brother Cyrus, specializing in banknotes, and the Durand, Perkins Company, which was dissolved in 1831. [5]

His success as an engraver notwithstanding, Durand, by the mid 1830s, had turned his attention almost exclusively to painting having received inspiration and encouragement from Thomas Cole, who was by then his good friend and colleague, and from the prominent New York dry goods merchant and art patron, Luman Reed (Fig. 7). Initially, under Reed's patronage, Durand focused his painting efforts on portraiture, soon adding historical subjects and genre scenes to his repertoire as well (Figs. 8-11). [6] Yet, it was his close kinship with Thomas Cole, nurtured by sketching trips the two artists began taking together to the Adirondack, Catskill, and White Mountains in 1837, that inspired Durand to pursue his true artistic calling: to be a painter of the American landscape.

By the late 1830s, when Durand made the shift solely to landscape painting, Cole had laid the essential groundwork for a distinctly American vision grounded in the exploration of the natural world in all its unbounded glory and in the expression of human concerns relating to God, nature, and morality as well as to the nation's mission and future. In his pictures of American scenery painted in the 1820s and 1830s, Cole extolled the natural beauty and grandeur of the mountain ranges of upstate New York and New England, which he viewed as the "undefiled works" of "God the Creator" (Figs. 12-14). His ambition was to raise landscape painting to a level of unprecedented historical importance, which he achieved by combining an empirical approach, based on direct observation, with a concern for capturing the inherent sacredness of America's natural scenery. In his "Essay on American Scenery," published in 1836, Cole expounded on his spiritual communion with nature, asserting that"the good, the enlightened of all ages and nations, have found pleasure and consolation in the beauty of the rural earth. Prophets of old retired into the solitudes of nature to wait the inspiration of heaventhe wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God."[7] Inspired by his mentor's impassioned plea to heed the spiritual call of nature, Durand pursued his own artistic path in the fifty years that followed, embracing much of Cole's vision in the beginning but ultimately creating landscape paintings that envisaged a communion with the American landscape that distinctly set him apart.

Extolling the nobility of American scenery, redolent of Divine promise, Durand's early easel paintings of bucolic rural life in the East, such as The Solitary Oak of 1844, reflect a romantic side to his communion with nature when Cole's influence, particularly his approach to the pastoral landscape, held sway over his evolving sensibility (Fig. 15). Like many of Durand's early pastorals, The Solitary Oak speaks to the redemptive power of the American countryside that contemporary urban patrons, wedded to a spectacular portrayal of natural scenery replete with poetic and spiritual associations, so craved. As one contemporary art critic noted of the painting, "it seemedas if that landscape alone would be a retreat, a seclusion, a world by itself to retreat into from care or sad thoughts-so mellow and deep was the distance, so true to nature the colouring the drawing, so sweetly poetical the composition." [8]

With Thomas Cole's untimely death in 1848, Durand gained a greater sense of creative independence as his artistic communion with the American landscape become ever more grounded in the empirical study of nature minus the high levels of poetic allegory and historicism he had absorbed from his mentor. Indeed, the 1850s saw a decided shift in Durand's focus toward a more sensory and immediate aesthetic, guided as it was by his fervent desire to study nature's particulars with a clear, reverent eye and to record them faithfully so as to convey the look and feel of direct experience. One can see this evolution unfolding in scores of studies Durand executed, in both graphite and oil, while exploring the forest interiors and mountain ranges of upstate New York and New England (Figs. 16-19). In these nature studies, detailed renderings of rocks, dense undergrowth, and the intricate foliage, trunks and root structures of trees assume a commanding presence, revealing that, for Durand, nature's simple forms, spontaneously recorded on the spot, imparted not only a sense of grandeur but "lessons of high and holy meaning." [9] This devout empiricism and precise rendering also informed the large scale compositions he continued to create for the remainder of his career. For paintings such as White Mountain Scenery, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire (1857) and Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George, New York (1875), painted at age 79, just eleven years before his death, Durand drew upon his vast treasury of natural landscape features, recorded on canvas and painstakingly transcribed in his travel sketchbooks, to depict panoramic views that give the viewer the sensation of being there at the site (Figs. 20-24). [10]

Undoubtedly, as scholars have noted, Durand's communion with nature was as much a spiritual journey as an artistic one, making, in essence, the sketches, drawings, and paintings he produced acts of personal devotion. [11] His vision of the American landscape captured what William Cullen Bryant, the nature poet and Durand's close friend, had described as "the absence of those tamings and softenings of cultivationa far spread wildness, a look as if the new world was fresher from the Hand of Him who made itabstracting the mind from the associations of human agency" and carrying it "up to the idea of a mightier power and to the great mystery of the origins of things.[12]" Durand too, expounded on his artistic vision in his "Letters on Painting," published in the Crayon in 1855, urging artists to "go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape," for there they would "find in the conscientious study of her beauties all the great first principles of art." For Durand, it was "the simple truths of nature," above and beyond established artistic convention, that "constitute[d] the true Religion of Art."[13] Thus, by the mid 1850s, Durand, with his distinct artistic vision, had finally emerged from the shadow of his mentor, Thomas Cole, as an influential artist in his own right. Making his unique mark on American landscape painting, he went on to inspire a second generation of Hudson River School artists to greater heights of artistic achievement.

1. Lee A. Vedder is currently the Luce Curatorial Fellow in American Art at the New York Historical Society, serving as the primary curator of the Society's painting and sculpture collection. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland, specializing in both British and American art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Exhibitions she has curated for the Historical Society include The Luman Reed Gallery: A History of Art Collecting in Nineteenth-Century New York (on permanent view) and The Course of Empire: Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School Landscape Tradition, Selections from the New-York Historical Society (New York State Museum, Albany, NY, Fall 2003). She is also developing a didactic reinstallation of the Historical Society's painting collection in Dexter Hall for Spring 2005.
2. Augmenting the Society's exceptional collection of original art works are a ca. 1854 daguerreotype of Durand (fig.) and an array of tools and artifacts he used throughout his career, many of which are on view in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture. Among them are a gold pocket watch (1933.45); the four-drawer tabouret he used in his studio, which still contains his brushes, palettes, paints, and an array of artist tools (1932.237); a cylindrical carrying case containing two primed canvases (INV.8605a-c) and a Sheffield silver cigar box he used for carrying sandwiches (1933.47), both of which accompanied him on his sketching trips in the field; and other objects from his 91 Amity Street studio in New York, including the silver--plated door plate bearing his name (1933.46), his father's Chippendale-style walnut slant-top desk 1931.48), and a Renaissance revival style sofa he used as a sitter's bench (1933.201). The family donors of the collection included Durand's children, John Durand (1822-1908) and daughter Lucy Maria Durand Woodman (1829-1910), as well as his granddaughter Nora Durand Woodman (1864-1935). A checklist of the Society's collection was first compiled by David Barnard Lawall in his dissertation Asher Brown Durand: His Art and Art Theory in Relation to his Times (University of Virginia, 1966; New York: Garland Publishers, 1977). A more detailed catalogue of the collection was prepared by Richard J. Koke, American Landscape and Genre Paintings in The New-York Historical Society (Boston: New York Historical Society in association with G.K. Hall, 1982), vol 1: 294-380. See also the Society's Museum online catalogue at www.nyhistory.org.
3. Durand's artistic communion with the American landscape is to be the subject of a retrospective exhibition of the artist's career organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art scheduled to open in October 2006 and then travel to two other museums in the United States. Entitled "Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape," the exhibition, featuring about fifty of Durand's most accomplished oil paintings and a generous selection of works on paper, including a number from the New-York Historical Society's collection, is the first scholarly project in over thirty years devoted to an overview of Durand's artistic achievement as engraver, draftsman, portrait, history, and landscape painter. Accompanying the exhibition will be a fully illustrated scholarly publication that will present, with fresh insight and discovery, the artist, his works, and his period of endeavor in a rich art-historical and cultural context.
4. The Asher B. Durand Print Collection at the Historical Society, housed in the Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections (PR-221), includes bank note vignettes, book and magazine illustrations, certificates, and portraits published between 1813 and 1836.
5. Durand was also very active in the New York art community at this time and played an instrumental role in organizing the New York Drawing Association in 1825, which later became the National Academy of Design, and in founding the New York Sketch Club in 1829 (later the Century Association). For a survey of Durand's career as an engraver, see Wayne Craven, "Asher B. Durand's Career as an Engraver," American Art Journal, vol. 3 (Spring 1975): 39-57.
6. Durand's series of portraits of the first seven U.S. presidents, together with The Wrath of Peter Stuyvesant and The Pedlar Displaying his Wars, all painted in 1835, were proudly displayed in the specially designed two-room art gallery in Luman Reed's lower Manhattan townhouse as part of the patron's vision to nurture the creation of a national artistic culture in America, independent of European tradition. Durand was in good company, for Reed was also an ardent supporter of Thomas Cole, who by 1835, was well on his way toward completing his epic achievement, The Course of Empire, which Reed had commissioned two years earlier. For an extensive study of Reed's patronage of Cole and Durand and the Luman Reed Art Collection, donated intact to the New-York Historical Society in 1858, see Ella M. Foshay et al, Mr. Luman Reed's Picture Gallery: A Pioneer Collection of American Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the New-York Historical Society, 1990).
7. Cole's essay was published in American Monthly Magazine, 1 (January 1836).
8. Annonymous writer, The New Mirror (March 2, 1844); quoted in Richard J. Koke et al, American Landscape and Genre Paintings in the New-York Historical Society (New York and Boston: The New-York Historical Society in association with G. K. Hall & Co., 1982), vol. 1: 321. For a recent discussion of the painting see New-York Historical Society, Perspectives on the Collections of the New-York Historical Society (New York: The New-York Historical Society, 2000), 32-33.
9. Asher Brown Durand; see opening quote to essay.
10. The most comprehensive study on Durand remains David Lawall's published Ph.D. dissertation (see full citation in note 1). For more recent studies on Durand's evolution as a landscape painter and his nature studies, see the exhibition catalogues, Ella M. Foshay and Barbara Novak, Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William Cullen Bryant (New York: The New-York Historical Society, 2000); and Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1998).
11. See Ella Foshay, "Intimate Friends," in Ella Foshay and Barbara Novak, Intimate Friends, 29-35.
12. William Cullen Bryant; quoted in Barbara Novak, "A Note on Durand's Studies from Nature," in Ella Foshay and Barbara Novak, Intimate Friends, 43.
13. "Letters on Painting. Letter I" The Crayon (January 3, 1855) No. 1: 2. Durand's "Letters on Painting" were published monthly in eight single letter installments between January and June 1855.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library extends its appreciation to Ms. Laura Washington of The New-York Historical Society for her help concerning reprinting of this essay and the accompanying texts.


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