Communing With Nature on a Grand Scale

March 30, 2007 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

Although he was one of the greats of 19th-century American landscape painting and a founder of the Hudson River School, in the market madness of the current art world Asher B. Durand only recently became a boldface name. In May 2005 the New York Public Library allowed its star painting, Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits,” to be spirited away for about $35 million by the Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton, who is building the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits” (1849) visits the Brooklyn Museum.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art

Durand’s eye for detail is evident in “The Beeches” (1845).

The sizable painting depicts two friends and well-known New York cultural figures, the landscapist Thomas Cole, who had recently died, and the poet-journalist William Cullen Bryant, communing on a rocky ledge in a scenic gorge. It’s a moving if slightly schmaltzy tribute to the richness of the city’s cultural patrimony. Donated to the library in 1904 by Bryant’s daughter, the painting had been there for more than 100 years, and is arguably Durand’s best-known and most striking work, evoking the majesty of nature while emphasizing its harmony with the human spirit. The painting’s removal from its native habitat is a real loss.

Count it as good news, though, that it is now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, where it has returned to appear in “Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape,” a show of about 60 Durand works organized by Linda S. Ferber, former chairwoman and curator of American painting at the Brooklyn Museum. (Now a vice president and museum director of the New-York Historical Society, Ms. Ferber is mounting a separate exhibition there devoted to Durand’s world that opens next month.)

One of the less dramatic painters of the Hudson River School, Durand (1796-1886) favored the realistic approach to landscape advocated by the English critic John Ruskin, rather than the metaphorical view held by Cole and other Hudson Riverites that its representation ought to express God’s sublimity. Obeying Ruskin’s call for truth to nature, Durand explored forest interiors with close attention to the ways of trees, foliage, rocks and ground cover in smaller paintings, while his larger and more elaborate exhibition pictures, influenced by European masters like Claude Lorrain and John Constable, are Arcadian visions suffused with light, color and atmospheric perspective.

A vibrant example of both approaches is “The Beeches” (1845), a landscape in a vertical format that was new in his work and probably derived from Constable. A beech and a linden tree, leaning but sturdy and in vigorous leaf, dominate the left foreground. Beside them a rustic path meanders down to a shining pond, which a shepherd and his fleecy flock are nearing. In the distance a range of pale blue hills juts into a bluer but cloud-streaked sky. If it is compositionally similar to Constable’s 1826 canvas “The Cornfield,” never mind. The harmoniously lighted scene, projecting an atmosphere of peace, plenty and all’s right with the world, was warmly received by critics, admired as much for its ambitious scale as for its “every-day character,” as one viewer wrote at the time of its exhibition.

Durand’s prowess as a painter was all the more interesting because he had no formal training in fine art. Apprenticed to an engraver in his youth, he became a master in that profession but was ambitious to assume the more prestigious role of easel artist. By 1826, he had become a power in the art world, one of the founders of the National Academy of Design, which he later served as president for 16 years.

His interest in painting was intensified by his discovery that year of several Cole canvases. He saw them in a Manhattan dealer’s shop he visited with two prominent artist friends, John Trumbull and William Dunlap. Each of the three bought one.

Durand became close friends with Cole, who encouraged his painting ambitions. By 1835, urged on by a patron, the merchant Luman Reed, Durand was painting life portraits of presidents and other prominent figures, and by 1838 had begun to try his hand at landscape. One of these early ventures, whose humor is almost unique in his work, is “Dance on the Battery in the Presence of Peter Stuyvesant” (1838), a kind of fête galante on the order of Watteau, in which Stuyvesant, the peg-legged governor of New York, sits out a merry if rather stiffly painted country dance under sheltering trees.

An 1837 sketching trip with Cole to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks seemed to fix Durand’s concentration on landscape. His work became stronger after a year in Europe in 1840 to study the old masters with a view to improving his composition and color handling. He became known for his elegant scenic depictions, mostly in the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountain regions, like “Mountain Stream” (circa 1848), which shows a boulder-filled rivulet running between woodsy mountainsides toward the deep gorge known as the Kaaterskill Clove, with the Catskill range thrusting up in the background. A stag stands poised on a rock in the picture’s center.

But he departed often enough from formula paintings over the years to hold his viewers’ interest. One example is the large “Progress (The Advance of Civilization)” (1853). An uncharacteristically bold endorsement of the Manifest Destiny belief in United States expansion to the Pacific, it was commissioned by the New York collector Charles Gould. It gives a reverse twist to Cole’s pessimistic painting “The Course of Empire” (1833-36) by depicting what Ms. Ferber calls “the landscape of investment.”

In “Progress” an imaginary topography suggesting the Catskills and the Hudson River is replete with villages, farms, steamboats and a railroad. A dazzling city sits near the horizon, struck by the light from a benignly expansive sky. In the not-so-pretty foreground, a hardscrabble road leads out of the picture, and a clutch of American Indians survey the alarming scene from a rock in a forest area packed into the lower left corner of the canvas.

I can’t resist quoting here one view of Durand’s work by the critic and teacher Frank Jewett Mather, who said in 1927, “It was a calamity for American line engraving when Durand quit such work as this for 40 years of mediocre landscape painting.” But that was one man’s opinion. If the show reveals some of Durand’s weaknesses — repetitive themes and borrowings from other artists — it reinforces his strong sense of artistic mission and his potent role in shaping the esthetic of 19th-century America.

At the New-York Historical Society, which owns much Durand material given over the years by his family, Ms. Ferber is mounting an engrossing show (April 13 to Sept. 30), “The World of Asher B. Durand: The Artist in the Antebellum New York.” Its more than 70 works include paintings by Durand and his fellow artists, among them Trumbull, Dunlap, Cole, William Sidney Mount and John F. Kensett. Portraits of Durand’s circle of artists, writers, critics, publishers and patrons add much to the show’s interest.

Sketchbooks and memorabilia, including Durand’s gold pocket watch and his silver cigar box, are part of the exhibition, along with examples of his early engravings and even a brass lathe developed by his brother Cyrus for stamping the intricate “safety” backgrounds on bank notes created by the artist. Highlights include handsome likenesses of his two wives, Lucy Baldwin Durand and Mary Frank Durand, and a charming portrait of his three children in an idyllic setting, made after Lucy’s death in 1830. As a pendant to — no, more than that, an enhancement of — the Brooklyn show, it’s well worth taking in.

“Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape” continues through July 29 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park, (718) 638-5000; brooklynmuseum.org.

By GRACE GLUECK

NEW YORK TIMES 

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