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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886)

The acknowledged dean of American landscape painters following the death of Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand exemplified the fresh ideal of naturalism for the second-generation painters that came to be called the Hudson River School. Born in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood), New Jersey, Durand first worked for his father, a watchmaker and silversmith, before apprenticing with the engraver Peter Maverick in Newark, from 1812 to 1817. In the latter year, he became Maverick’s associate and established and led the firm’s New York City branch until 1820, when he left following a dispute with Maverick over Durand’s independent acceptance of a commission from John Trumbull to engrave his famous painting, The Declaration of Independence (1786; Yale University Art Gallery). Completed in 1823, the engraving significantly boosted Durand’s standing in the New York art world, and in 1825 he joined with Samuel F. B. Morse, Thomas Cole, William Sidney Mount, and others in founding the New-York Drawing Association, soon to be called the National Academy of Design; shortly after, he was elected to the Lunch Club, ancestor of the Bread and Cheese Club, the Sketch Club, and the Century Association. Under the influence of his fellow artists, Durand in the 1830s turned more and more to painting, producing genre scenes and portraits. The latter included a series of the American presidents commissioned by the liberal New York dry-goods merchant Luman Reed, who by 1835 had persuaded Durand to abandon engraving.

Reed was also an enthusiastic patron of Mount and Cole, and the latter’s talent, ideals, and success as a landscape painter increasingly attracted Durand, who was among the first New Yorkers in 1825 to buy a Cole painting. The two eventually became fast friends and, as early as 1837, sketching companions in the Adirondacks and, in 1839, in New England. The earlier jaunt probably was pivotal in converting Durand to landscape painting; however, he had begun exhibiting the occasional landscape subject at the Academy a decade earlier. Durand’s commitment to his new artistic career was reflected in his first and only journey abroad, from April 1840 to June 1841, visiting Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and, from October 1840 to the following May, Italy, from the lake district as far south as Naples. With him on part of the journey were two younger aspiring painters who had also started in the engraving trade, John Frederick Kensett and John William Casilear.

Though Durand copied the old masters extensively in the galleries of Europe and drew frequently outdoors, his most critical encounter abroad may have been in London, where the American expatriate Charles Robert Leslie showed him, Kensett, and Casilear paintings and plein-air oil sketches by the late British master John Constable, for whose estate Leslie was the executor. To one Constable painting, Durand responded that it evinced “more of simple truth and naturalness than any English landscape I have ever before met with.” On his return home, Durand seemed to take Constable’s naturalism to heart, fortifying his conviction by reading Leslie’s 1843 biography of the English master as well as the first volume, also published in 1843, of British critic John Ruskin‘s Modern Painters. Durand began making seasonal trips in the hills along the Hudson River, then in the Adirondacks and New England—often with other artists or with his family—to sketch in pencil and oil directly from mostly near-at-hand natural motifs. From these, he fashioned progressively vivid compositions typically of woodland interiors, culminating in masterpieces of organic verisimilitude, such as the Museum’s In the Woods, 1855 (95.13.1). In the same year, Durand cemented his reputation as the guiding philosopher of the second generation of New York landscape painters with the publication in nine periodical installments of his “Letters on Landscape Painting.” In these, he ardently promoted the practice of painting outdoors from humble natural objects as the route to learning and refining one’s art as opposed to learning from other art or artists. Concurrently, Durand functioned as the personal exemplar to several of the younger painters who gathered about him in a veritable summer sketching colony in the White Mountains.

By 1855, Durand had also been president of the National Academy of Design for a decade and would remain so until the beginning of the Civil War, testimony not only to his personal qualities but to the preeminence to which landscape had risen by the mid-nineteenth century. The mantle of leadership he had inherited from Cole, who died in 1848, is exemplified in the commission he received the following year to portray Cole and William Cullen Bryant together in the Catskills in what may be the most renowned of Hudson River School paintings, Kindred Spirits (1849; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas), executed in commemoration of Bryant’s eulogy to Cole at his death. Durand never paid greater tribute to his inspiration, yet evidence in his 1840s correspondence with Cole, since 1836 living in Catskill, reveals evolving differences between them of aesthetic philosophy; envy on Cole’s part of his acolyte’s rising success in New York; and a corresponding degree of estrangement left unresolved at Cole’s demise. In his “Letters on Landscape Painting,” then, Durand acknowledged Cole’s originating contribution to American landscape painting but stressed the need to advance it beyond him.

Despite his fervent espousal of naturalism in landscape art, Durand failed to pursue it consistently, and many of the paintings of his long maturity—scrupulously executed as most are—reflect more conventional landscape modes based on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French and Dutch antecedents. Critical acclaim declined accordingly, especially as younger painters such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt pushed the thresholds of both subject and technique with vast frontier landscapes of South America, the Arctic, and the West. However, even after Durand’s retirement in 1869 to his native Maplewood, he was scarcely forgotten. In 1872, he was feted at home by twenty of his former colleagues from the National Academy, and his work continued to appear at such venues as the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. About 1879, in his ninth decade, Durand painted his last picture, seven years before his death.