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Asher Brown Durand (aka Asher B. Durand)

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Asher Brown Durand
(Jefferson, New Jersey, 1796 - 1886, Maplewood, New Jersey)

“If [the artist] is imbued with the true spirit to appreciate and enjoy the contemplation of [nature’s] loveliness, he will approach her with veneration, and find in the conscientious study of her beauties all the great first principles of art.”
- Asher B. Durand

In the nineteenth century, art critics and the public alike called for an art form that was strictly American. They no longer wanted art that emulated the Old Masters, but art that embodied the past, present, and future of the new nation. Because America was so young, artists were unable to rely upon a rich cultural history for subject matter. Instead, they turned to America’s natural wonders. Not only were they depicting America’s rich natural history, but also answering a call for representations of the untamed and unexplored American West. American landscape was vastly different from that of Europe, as it was largely unpopulated, virgin, and devoid of history found everywhere overseas. While tackling the American landscape initially may have been intimidating, inherent in the American consciousness was an instinct to find spiritual significance in nature. Landscape artists such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), under the support and patronage of "New York Post" owner William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), formed the Hudson River School and created a painting genre that was distinctly American.

Asher Brown Durand was born on August 21, 1796 in Jefferson, New Jersey. The son of a watchmaker and silversmith, Durand was the eighth of eleven children. His first training was from his father, who taught him copperplate engraving. The young Durand found great pleasure in trying to copy engravings in his father’s shop. His talents were soon recognized by Enos Smith, an amateur miniature portrait painter. In 1811, Smith and Durand’s father took the young artist to New York to procure him an apprenticeship with William S. Leney. However, Leney’s conditions, which included a one thousand dollar fee (along with the student covering room and board), were too expensive for the Durands. By 1812, Smith placed Durand with engraver Peter Maverick (1780-1831), who did not require high fees. It was under Maverick that Durand learned to pay close attention to nature and execute line with precision and detail. By 1817, Durand surpassed his master and he entered into a partnership with Maverick.

At this time, Durand befriended portrait painter Samuel Waldo (1783-1861), who was a source of encouragement and probably a stimulus for Durand to move ahead in his career.(1) Durand regularly copied Waldo’s paintings, and it was his engraving of the elder artist’s "Old Pat (A Beggar with a Bone)" (1819, Metropolitan Museum of Art) that attracted the attention of history painter John Trumbull.(2) In 1820, Durand was offered the engraving commission of Trumbull’s "Declaration of Independence."(3) Durand accepted the commission and failed to offer it first to Maverick (the master), as was customary. As a result, the partnership between the two men crumbled, and Durand assumed full responsibility of the shop. Following this, Durand opened an engraving business with his brother Cyrus, and later founded another engraving company, Durand, Perkins, and Co. Both businesses were principally occupied with the production of bank notes, for which Durand worked as designer and engraver. Prior to the latter’s dissolution in 1831, Durand completed a number of pictorial engravings and took his first steps toward becoming a painter.

While working in New York, Durand completed illustrations for American editions of the works of Lord Byron (1788-1824), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and John Milton (1608-1674). He was also active in New York’s artist societies and clubs. The artist joined the Bread and Cheese Club, a literary organization founded by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). The Club was a meeting place for artists, authors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and merchants. It became “a magnet for aspiring writers and artists who were seeking to create and define an aesthetic that could be called uniquely American.”(4) It was here that Durand first met William Cullen Bryant, whose poems explored the meaning and beauty of nature and were filled with references to the communion between man and God’s land. The theme of the poems was to “capture the imagination of young writers and artists who saw this land sanctified by God, as a major source of justification for Art in America.”(5) The Bread and Cheese Club exposed Durand to a world that was previously unknown to him – that of gentlemanly debates, the theater, and intellectual conversation. Art historian David Lawall suggests that this participation in these activities among the educated upper class compensated for Durand’s lack of formal education and served as an impetus to depict landscape from a philosophical, religious, political, and intellectual point of view. For Durand, landscape painting was not merely direct representation, but a place where he could synthesize the real and ideal in order to depict God’s creations.

The Bread and Cheese Club dissolved when Cooper left for Europe in 1826, but it was quickly replaced by the Sketch Club, of which Durand was a member. The Club took its name from the practice of sketching subjects from literature at each meeting. For example, at one meeting in 1830, artist members sketched on a topic from Byron, while their literary counterparts were asked to write an essay “on the Sublime.”(6) Among other clubs and societies, the Century Club, which included authors, artists, and “‘amateurs of letters and the fine arts,’ provided both collegiality and patronage for landscape painters.”(7)

The late 1820s and early 1830s proved to be a trying period for Durand. He married in 1821 and began a family with his wife. His second child died in 1827, and it was followed closely by his wife’s death in 1830. Shortly after, Durand closed his home in New York and began a restless, nomadic lifestyle. However, the following year, the artist was back in New York and by 1832 was ready to abandon engraving in favor of painting. However, for the time being the artist had to continue engraving in order to make a living. Durand’s early work consisted of portraiture, history and genre paintings, with the most notable being "The Capture of Major André"(1835, Worchester Art Museum). The year 1833 marked a turning point when Durand began a three-year stint painting for New York merchant, Luman Reed.

Reed had amassed a considerable fortune and was the most serious patron of art in America with Durand and Cole receiving the largest share of his commissions. Reed devoted the entire top story of his house to the exhibition of his paintings. It was the first private art gallery in a New York home open to the public. Through his patronage, Reed successfully unleashed the energies of the New York art world that had been gathering since the establishment of the National Academy of Design in 1825. He encouraged artists to attack the real, social, economic, and political problems of their time and he supplied a direction and purpose that had previously been lacking. For Durand, the opportunity provided him a chance to learn more of painting from the study and imitation of artists like Gilbert Stuart. Reed encouraged Durand to expand beyond portraiture and examine his interests in historical, genre, and landscape painting.

From 1833-35, Durand continued to work as an engraver and executed one of his most important series of works—nineteen plates for the National Gallery of Distinguished Americans. His best-known engraving is that after John Vanderlyn’s "Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos" (1809-14, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). By the time the engraving was published in 1835, Durand had established his reputation as a fine portrait painter.

Exhibition records from the American Art Union and the National Academy of Design show that by 1837, Durand was primarily exhibiting landscapes. Scholars know that during the middle to late 1830s, Durand accompanied Cole on sketching trips to the Catskills and it may have been during one of these trips that Durand decided to focus on landscape painting. The 1830s were a turbulent decade for Durand, and the country for that matter, and landscape provided a sense of solace and escape for the artist and the viewing public.(8)

In the summer of 1840, Durand, with contributions from patron Jonathan Sturges toured England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Along with fellow artist John Kensett, the artist studied the Old Masters and especially French landscapist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). Durand remained in Europe only a year, and upon his return to the United States, the artist resumed his summer sketching trips. He spent his summers in the Catskills, White Mountains, and Adirondacks and wintered in New York. By 1845, Durand was elected president of the National Academy of Design and he increasingly conveyed that the direct study of nature should be the primary inspiration for American artists. Hereafter, he began producing meticulously painted works that were admired for their faithful depictions of natural forms and light and atmosphere.

In terms of art and nature, there was a growing notion that painting could be spiritually restorative. Nature was a place where man could find nourishment, reaffirmation of identity, and of his integrity as a moral being. In addition, by the time Emerson wrote "Nature" in 1836, “God” and “nature” were virtually interchangeable terms. God in or revealed through nature is accessible to every man and every man can thus “commune” with nature and partake in the divine, resulting in a form of escapism from daily life. In other words, Durand held the Emersonian belief that nature was a manifestation of God, thus to contemplate or paint nature brought man closer to the divine and could inspire one to lead a moral life.

One later example of this communion with nature, is Durand’s "Kindred Spirits" (1849, Collection of the New York Public Library). In the painting, Durand pays homage to the memory of Cole, who died in 1848. The painting was commissioned as a memorial to Cole’s friendship with William Cullen Bryant by Jonathan Sturges, an important collector and Durand’s leading supporter. Durand’s tribute depicted Cole in a landscape setting, “sharing his delight in the natural scene with his eminent literary friend William Cullen Bryant.” (9) The two men stand on a rocky ledge that looks over a waterfall below and faces a rocky cliff side. The background is a vast mountainous landscape, while live and dead trees frame the scene in the foreground. The only other signs of life aside from the two men are two birds that fly at the right side of the canvas. While the painting intimates the sublimities of American landscape, it also demonstrates that spiritual solace can be found as well.

In contrast to "Kindred Spirits," Durand’s "God’s Judgment upon Gog" (1851-2, Chrysler Museum) demonstrates the terrible sublimity of God’s wrath. Exhibited at the National Academy in 1852, the painting was shown with a subtitle from the Book of Ezekiel:

And thou, son of man, thus saith the Lord GOD: speak unto every feathered fowl, and to every beast of the field. Assemble yourselves, and come; gather yourselves on every side to my sacrifice that I do sacrifice for you, even a great sacrifice upon the mountains of Israel, that ye may eat flesh, and drink blood.

Chapter 38 of the Book of Ezekiel opens with God appearing to the prophet, telling him to prophesy against Gog, who has amassed a great army in order to slaughter the chosen people of Israel. As a result of this onslaught, God’s vengeance would be terrible. In the painting, Durand places the prophet on a ledge (similar to that which Cole and Bryant stand on in "Kindred Spirits") overlooking the field of battle. The prophet’s arms are raised and he is spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight. The battle takes place in a valley between two intimidating and frightening mountains. At the top left, what appears to be a volcanic eruption breaks the dark clouds and landscape, with a bolt of lightening shooting from the clouds. To the right, blue sky is scattered in between breaking clouds. Flocks of birds swoop down from the clouds and high rocky crevices, positioned to attack below. Lions and tigers in the foreground charge towards the battle field. The battlefield opens up into a serene landscape that stretches into the background.

Art historian Tim Barringer explains that the painting is an historical landscape, and some critics of the 1850s considered it to be heavy-handed and old-fashioned. Other critics considered it a sublime tour-de-force, and one of Durand’s best works. Nevertheless, while perhaps not realized by Durand, the painting serves as an important symbolic precursor to Manifest Destiny and the coming decade, as Americans soon saw themselves as God’s chosen people exploring a new and unchartered “Holy Land.”

In 1855, Durand published nine “Letters on Landscape Painting” in the New York art journal, "The Crayon." In the “Letters,” Durand codified the tenets and practices of the Hudson River School addressed to an imaginary student. His theories were similar to that of influential British critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), as Durand advised American painters to work directly from nature. Durand believed that nature was the foundation of the landscape painter’s art, and therefore nature contributes the first principles of that art. Furthermore, nature embraces all that is valid in art and extends beyond the limits of the highest art. Only from the direct study of nature can the artist derive the foundation of his style.

One of Durand’s best-known landscapes, "Landscape – Scene from 'Thanatopsis'"(1850, Metropolitan Museum of Art), demonstrates this theory. In the painting, the artist created an ideal landscape. The foreground is dominated by a lush forest with aged trees that have clearly suffered nature’s wrath and since regrown. Rocky crags have torn through the ground only to be overtaken by fields of grass. The landscape slopes at a downward left angle, opening up to a river below that snakes into the background, recalling Thomas Cole’s "The Oxbow" (1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Behind the forest in the background is a mountainscape that drops down into the river below. A flooding light emanates from the left side of the canvas, giving it an ethereal appearance. The work also recalls Claudian landscape compositions and is an excellent example of American realist landscape painting.

Aside from his larger works such as "Kindred Spirits" and pure landscapes like "Landscape – Scene from 'Thanatopsis,'" Durand also painted smaller, more intimate landscapes of man and nature. For example, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts "Rural Landscape with Hay Wagon" (c. 1860) is one such painting. In the work, Durand depicts a farmer going about a chore of daily life surrounded by a peaceful, lush green landscape. The painting communicates the idea that one ought to act in harmony with nature. Oftentimes figures in Durand’s landscapes meditate upon, relax in, or coexist with nature.

During the 1860s, Durand continued with his routine of sketching in the summers and wintering in New York during the winters. In 1869, the artist moved back to New Jersey from New York and built a studio on family property in Maplewood, where he lived the rest of his life. He continued to paint throughout the 1870s with his last painting dated 1878. Durand died in New Jersey in 1886.

(1) Waldo created a successful partnership with his former apprentice, William Jewett (1789-1874). Called Waldo and Jewett, the business flourished for thirty years until 1854, making it the longest lived partnership of its kind in American art history. The two men painted portraits of many prominent New Yorkers, often signing their works “Waldo and Jewett.”

(2) Around 1818, Durand began informal study at the American Academy of Fine Arts, and it was here that he was first noticed by Trumbull, who was then the president of the Academy.

(3) Durand was paid three thousand dollars, exactly half the amount Trumbull paid top engravers to copy his work. See David Lawall, "Asher B. Durand: A Documentary Catalogue of the Narrative and Landscape Paintings" (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1978). Trumbull sent a copy of the engraving to General Lafayette in Paris in 1823. He sent a note with it stating that it “was by a young engraver, born in the vicinity and now only twenty-six years old. This work is wholly American, even to the paper and printing, a circumstance which renders it popular here and will make it a curiosity to you, who knew America when she had neither painters nor engravers, not arts of any kind, except those of stern utility.” For more, see David Lawall, "Asher Brown Durand: His Art and Art Theory in Relation to His Times" (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1977): 38.

(4) Holly Joan Pinto, "William Cullen Bryant and the Hudson River School of Landscape Painting" (Roslyn Harbor, New York: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1981): 6.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer, "American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002): 47.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Historians explain that President Andrew Jackson’s national administration destroyed the Bank of the United States. As a result, regulation of banking, credit, and currency fell to the state governments. The economic boom of the 1830s and the destruction of the national bank created a dramatic expansion in the number of state-chartered banks – from 329 in 1830 to 788 in 1837. Different states had different policies in terms of currency, and many customers were turned down when they presented state banknotes for redemption, thus causing the Panic of 1837, followed by a depression in the national economy. Events outside the country also contributed to the problem – the Bank of England, concerned over the flow of British gold to American speculators, cut off credit to firms that did business in the United States. As a result, American exports dropped sharply – particularly cotton, which fell by half. For more, see John M. Murrin, et al., "Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People" (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996): 403-434.

(8) Wilton and Barringer, 68.

- Letha Clair Robertson, 1/30/04

Image credit: Charles DeForest Fredricks, Asher Brown Durand, about 1858, albumenized salted paper print, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.77.123, CC0

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