Artistic Journeys Asher B. Durand, master of the Hudson River and White Mountain Schools of American Art


March 17, 2011
Most of us are familiar with his work; although many forget that he was one of the first artists to create his vision of the Mount Washington Valley. He was also known along with Benjamin Champney and John Kensett as one of the White Mountain School of painters.

Engraving and drawing was a common steppingstone in the career of an artist, and Durand was no exception. The son of a watchmaker and silversmith, he served a five-year apprenticeship to engraver, Peter Maverick in Newark, N.J. After completing his apprenticeship, he became a partner in the business. His reputation as an engraver was firmly established with the engraving of the painting of the Declaration of Independence for John Trumbull in 1823.

In 1832 Durand dissolved his profitable engraving business and entered into a short, successful period as a portrait painter. The financial panic in 1837, combined with encouragement from Thomas Cole led him to try landscape painting. Durand was not the founder of the Hudson River School. His young friend Thomas Cole (1801-1848)—who in 1837 took Durand along on a famous sketching trip into the Adirondacks—got the movement going.

He visited the White Mountains as early as 1839, and again from 1855 through 1857. He accompanied Cole on visits to the White Mountains, where he sketched and later finished many pieces, which helped to define the Hudson River School of painting and its offshoot, the White Mountain School.

Like other Hudson River and White Mountain School artists, Durand also believed that nature was the manifestation of God. He expressed this sentiment and his general views on art in his "Letters on Landscape Painting," in The Crayon, a mid-19th century New York art periodical. These 'letters' were the manifesto for the artists of the day. Durand wrote: "[T]he true province of Landscape Art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation..."

Another common step for American artists in the nineteenth century was to go on a grand European tour to visit the famous sites, significant museums and studios of the grand master artists. In 1840, Durand embarked on a two-year European Grand Tour, part of which was spent in the company of the artists John Kensett and Benjamin Champney. From his annual summer sketching trips in the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains, Durand produced hundreds of drawings and oil sketches that he later incorporated into finished pieces.

If you were to go hiking with Durand, you would have to be careful, as you would likely trip over the gnarled roots, cragged rocks, or be soaked by the dramatic waterfalls he painted in his landscapes. Despite the sprinkling of a few intrepid cows, it was raw, wild nature that Durand painted in his vision.

He is particularly remembered for his detailed portrayals of trees, rocks, and foliage. He was an advocate for drawing directly from nature with as much realism as possible. Durand wrote, "Let [the artist] scrupulously accept whatever [nature] presents him until he shall, in a degree, have become intimate with her infinity...never let him profane her sacredness by a willful departure from truth."

Many of Durand's works are familiar to us, although we may not know his name. As well as his famous engraving, Durand is noted for his 1849 painting "Kindred Spirits," which shows fellow Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant in a Catskill's landscape. This was painted as a tribute to Thomas Cole upon his death in 1848, when Durand was recognized as the leader of American landscape painting.

Durand spent the rest of his life after 1857 painting in New York City. This dean of the Hudson River and White Mountain Schools of American Art died on Sept. 17, 1886 and is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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