- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

American artist Asher B. Durand made headlines in 2005 when one of his mid-19th-century paintings was purchased by Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton from the New York Public Library for a purported $35 million. The sale left many wondering about the importance of this lesser-known Hudson River School painter and his quiet landscape.

“Kindred Spirits” (1849) depicts Durand’s mentor, the painter Thomas Cole, and their mutual friend, poet William Cullen Bryant, on a stone ledge above a gorge, perhaps discussing the Romantic sonnet by John Keats for which the work is named.

Now this poetic painting can be fully appreciated alongside 56 other Durand works, some of which are far more compelling than Miss Walton’s painting. “Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum provides an excellent introduction to this long-neglected statesman of the Hudson River School who paid such close attention to nature.

Durand’s scenic depictions of the Catskills, White Mountains and Adirondack region are far less dramatic than better-known pictures by other artists of the school. It is easy to understand why they are considered secondary to the panoramas of icebergs and waterfalls by the artist’s younger rival, Frederic Church, and the allegorical visions by Cole, their mutual teacher.

The exhibition’s main achievement is to reveal Durand”s keen powers of observation. He strongly advocated outdoor painting, which contributed to the realism of his landscapes. The show’s best section focuses on his exacting studies of rocks and trees that anticipate the nature-for-nature’s-sake approach of the impressionists. After sketching these images in the field, the artist would return to his studio to assemble them into larger, more elaborate compositions of imagined views.

Rather than presenting the work chronologically, the exhibit dives right into Durand’s most accomplished scenes from the 1840s and 1850s, starting with “Kindred Spirits.” One of the inventions he introduced to American landscape painting was a vertical format, using trees in the foreground to direct the eye to objects in the distance.

Durand first tried it in “The Beeches” (1845), placing the tall trunks and leafy boughs of a forest to frame a golden-lighted path. A shepherd and his woolly flock are shown wandering into the distance toward a shimmering pond and pale blue mountains. Nature is presented as heaven on Earth.

A decade later, the artist embraced the idea that more untrammeled landscapes were a truer manifestation of the divine spirit. The view seen in “In the Woods” (1855) is concentrated within a forest primeval, with no evidence of human life. This shift from the landscape as cultivated garden to unspoiled wilderness reflects English critic John Ruskin’s dictum that art should communicate truth in nature.

Well, not the whole truth. To modern eyes, Durand”s peaceful woods and valleys with their perfectly placed tree trunks and animals appear staged, not quite believable. The thunderclouds and lightning in “June Shower” (1854) are the closest he comes to capturing nature’s menace.

The meticulous realism of these landscapes keeps us looking. Durand’s talent for capturing the minutiae of his surroundings — moss growing on tree bark, lichen on stones — derived from his early career as a successful engraver. Born in 1796 on a New Jersey farm, he apprenticed to an illustrator at age 16 and soon mastered the art of reproducing bank notes and the famous paintings of the time. Included in the show is his faithful engraving of John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence,” a painting that hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Urged on by a patron, merchant Luman Reed, Durand painted likenesses of presidents and other prominent Americans. One such portrait in the show, the bushy-browed “Aaron Ogden,” reveals the same attention to detail he applied to his landscapes. During the 1830s, the artist also tried his hand at genre subjects and, after a 1837 sketching trip in the Adirondacks with Cole, began concentrating on landscapes.

A trip to Europe in 1840 deepened his sense of color and composition. Scenes of grazing cows and a shipwreck under glowing sunsets — some of the cornier works in the show — reflect the influence of English painter John Constable, French artist Claude Lorrain and Dutch master Aelbert Cuyp.

The death of Cole in 1848 led Durand to paint “Kindred Spirits” as a memorial to his mentor. It freed him to embark on a more naturalistic direction in his work and to assume the leadership of the American landscape movement.

Durand was elected president of the National Academy of Design, the top organization for 19th-century American artists, and held that office for 16 years. He became involved in almost every important cultural institution in antebellum New York. In 1855, his advice on painting outdoors was published as “Letters on Landscape Painting,” which became a valuable resource for generations of artists and historians.

No starving artist, Durand was well connected, and his wealthy patrons appreciated his ability to convey America’s affinity for the land and its westward expansion. One of the standouts in the show is “Progress (The Advance of Civilization),” a painted representation of the Manifest Destiny doctrine popular during the 1840s. It shows a covered wagon leaving a waterside city in the distance while American Indians survey the scene from behind the trees.

Durand had a remarkably long life, witnessing the rise and decline of the Hudson River School. He was born while George Washington was president and died in 1886 at age 90. He continued to paint until the 1870s, spending several months of every year on sketching trips. Closing the exhibit is “Kaaterskill Clove,” painted when Durand was 70. Its pale, atmospheric scene of Catskill mountains and distant river valley show that this elder statesman of the art world was still fixated on his faultless vision of the landscape, unconcerned with the reality of an increasingly industrialized America.

WHAT: “Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape”

WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Through Jan. 6

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB: americanart.si.edu

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