George Henry Durrie
(New Haven, Connecticut, 1820 – 1863, New Haven, Connecticut)
The primary theme of American painting in the mid-nineteenth century was the American landscape. Amongst the painters of that era (many trained in Europe), subjects from history were ranked as the most “inspirational” and instructive, however it was landscape painting that became overwhelmingly popular with the American audience as well as American artists. Scenes of the wilderness, and of the areas of settlement and cultivation moving westward from the east coast, were adopted as visual celebrations of the material prosperity of the new world, as well as signifiers of the spiritual beneficence of the Almighty. An entire generation of artists practiced in this tradition of The Hudson River School, painting the wilderness landscapes of the Atlantic seaboard.
George Henry Durrie (1820-1863) of New Haven, Connecticut, was an artist who aspired to success in this landscape tradition. Not academically trained, and initially working as an itinerant portraitist, he was later associated with the depiction of landscape and scenes of rural life in winter. In addition, Currier and Ives, the nineteenth-century publishers of popular chromolithographs, reproduced Durrie’s winter landscape paintings and contributed to his eventual art historical reputation. His association with the publishers of these popular prints, and his exposure to print reproductions of works by other artists, may have also inspired Durrie’s creation of a limited number of genre subjects, of which Holidays in the County, The Cider Party 1853, is a fascinating example.
If landscape was the primary theme of nineteenth-century American painting, a significant secondary theme was that of American genre painting. Genre paintings are generally defined as narrative-driven scenes of everyday life painted in a realistic style, an artistic tradition based in Northern European painting of the seventeenth century. In the United States, genre painting had a brief period of popularity in the early nineteenth century, achieved through the work of a relatively few artists. “…Artists typically produced genre paintings during times of great change, most prominently in the economic sphere, when within a broad middle class old hierarchical relationships were challenged and new ones forged.” (1) This was true of the critical period prior to the Civil War, and the dynamic nature of politics and culture fueled a popular interest in genre subjects.
The most important and influential genre painter of the 1830s was William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), and several elements prominent in the composition of Holidays in the Country, The Cider Party, suggest that Durrie was quite familiar with Mount’s work. Seeking to build a career as an artist in ante-bellum New York, Mount focused on depictions of the Yankee farmer, a “type” that for viewers in the 1830s carried critical political and social connotations. As the nation struggled to find a proper balance between urban and rural populations, commercial versus agrarian interests, and regional influences in national politics, seemingly innocuous scenes took on significance beyond the overt narrative content.
George Henry Durrie was not very well known outside of New Haven, Connecticut in his lifetime, and did not receive much attention from art historians prior to the mid-twentieth century. (2) He was the second son of John and Clarissa Clark Durrie, born June 6, 1820 in New Haven. George Durrie’s father was associated with the New Haven book-selling firm, Durrie and Peck, for nearly thirty years. Two of his children, John, born in 1818 and George, born in 1820, became artists, and the elder John assisted his sons by allowing them the use of the store for exhibiting pictures and holding public drawings in the evenings.(3) Both sons became students of a local artist, Nathanial Jocelyn (1796-1881) in 1839, and George quickly became a practicing itinerant portraitist.(4)
Durrie was able to earn a modest living as a portrait painter, often creating portraits of family members in series. Beginning in 1839, he worked in Bethany and Hartfold, and then in Naugatuck and Meriden, Connecticut. He also began traveling to Freehold, New Jersey and Petersburg, Virginia to execute portrait commissions. (5) These works are in the tradition of naïve American portraiture, with meticulous attention to decorative detail, but, especially at first, displaying an inadequate mastery of anatomy. (6) In 1839 he met Sarah Perkins and they married in 1841. The couple set up housekeeping in New Haven, and they resided there with their family of three children.
A sense of Durrie’s life and character is ascertained by study of a surviving journal that he kept between 1845 and 1846. It describes a simple but rich life devoted to the creative arts:
Although he became a painter by profession, he was by inclination a great lover of music and devoted much of his leisure time to singing in the choir and playing the violin and bass viol. Undoubtedly it was his love of music that turned his interests toward the Church. In his diary long entries appear for each Sunday, a day entirely devoted to worship and singing. (7)
His portrait painting practice, along with some odd jobs, allowed the artist a living, but Durrie’s passion was for the painting of landscapes.
Throughout the 1840s Durrie painted an increasing number of landscapes, and included landscape as the background for some of his portraits. He exhibited a winter landscape at the New Haven State Fair in 1844, and from that point forward he promoted his landscape practice as much as possible. (8) Early in his painting career he primarily made views of the landscape around New Haven, and he achieved some success in selling these works locally. These were not winter scenes necessarily, but depicted local, recognizable landmarks such as East Rock and West Rock. Increasingly however, he began to find his most success with scenes of the rural countryside covered in winter snow, and beginning in the 1850s, he produced large numbers of these compositions. (9)
(1) Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting, the Politics of Everyday Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), xii.
(2) Durrie’s works were mass-produced as chromolithographs by the publishing firm of Currier and Ives. Currier and Ives were in business between 1834 and 1907, producing more than 8,000 lithographs that were sold inexpensively, to a middle class market. Ten of Durrie’s winter landscapes were reproduced and sold by the firm in the 1860s. With the renewed popularity of Currier and Ives prints in the mid-twentieth century, the source works by Durrie became increasingly sought after. The collector and historian Harry Peters left his extensive collection of Currier and Ives prints to the Museum of the City of New York, and wrote the initial authoritative source on the firm, Currier & Ives: Printmakers to the American People, in 1942. Julia Hollett Courtney, “The Artists Who Worked for Currier and Ives,” in The Legacy of Currier & Ives: Shaping the American Spirit (Springfield, MA: Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, 2010), pp. 18-25.
(3) Martha Young Hutson, George Henry Durrie (1820-1863): American Winter Landscapist: Renowned Through Currier and Ives (San Diego, CA: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1977), p.19.
(4) Bartlett Cowdrey, George Henry Durrie, 1820-1863 (Hartford, CT: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1947), n.p.
(5) Hutson, 1977, p. 23.
(6) Several examples of Durrie’s portraiture are found in Cowdrey, plates 1-4.
(7) Cowdrey, n.p.
(8) Hutson, 1977, p. 41.
(9)His earliest known and dated winter scene is Sleighs Arriving at the Inn, 1851. Hutson, 1977, p. 49.
Image credit: George Henry Durrie (American, 1820–1863), Self-portrait, 1843, oil on canvas, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, CC0