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 Asher Brown Durand  (1796 - 1886)

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Lived/Active: New York/New Jersey      Known for: engraving, landscape, portrait, and genre-history painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known as the "father of American landscape painting", Asher Durand was the major exponent of the Hudson River School style of painting.  However, he did not take up painting with any seriousness until he was age forty.  His early career was engraving, and in 1823, he earned much distinction for his engraving of John Trumbull's 1787 painting, The Declaration of Independence.

Durand was born in Jefferson Village, now Maplewood, New Jersey to a family of eleven children supported by the father, John Durand, who was a watchmaker and silversmith.  Working with his father monogramming watches and crafting silver, young Asher Durand developed engraving skills, which determined the early years of his career.  At age 16, he went to Newark, where he apprenticed to Peter Maverick, and five years later, they formed a partnership in New York City from 1817 to 1820.  There, as a result of his success with the Trumbull painting as well as other commissions, he "was known as the country's best engraver". (Zellman, 116)  This distinction brought him many commissions for banknotes, landscapes and portraits, and also allowed him money enough to pay the rent for his own studio.  In 1826, he became one of the founding members of the National Academy of Design.  He was also a co-founder of the New York Drawing Association, the New York Sketch Club and the Century Association.

Meanwhile, his good friend and frequent sketching partner, Thomas Cole, was encouraging Durand to give up print-making for painting, something that may not have taken much persuasion as apparently he had become "disenchanted with engraving.  (Boettcher 252)   In 1837, Cole, then the most famous landscape painter in America, and Durand took a sketching trip to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks, and at that time, Durand became committed to landscape painting, which meant a major change in his career.  On this trip and numerous others with Cole that included the Catskill and White Mountains, he did many oil sketches and watercolor studies, which he used later for the panoramic paintings that became his signature work.

Friendship with Luman Reed, a New York grocer, led to patronage that supported Durand during his transition.  To make money, he did much portraiture, primarily of prominent Americans including a series of all the United States Presidents to that time.  He also did some genre scenes.

From 1840 to 1841, he traveled in Europe with three engraver friends who would also turn to landscape paintings.  These future painters were John Kensett, John Casilear, and Thomas Rossiter.  In London, Durand was especially influenced by the serene, atmospheric work of John Constable, and commented that his painting expressed "more of simple truth and naturalness than any English landscape I have ever before met with". (Boettcher, 252)

He returned to America to paint exclusively American landscapes, which were visual counterparts of his belief that God was in nature and that painting nature was a way of worshiping God.  In his 'Letters on Landscape Painting' for an 1855 edition of Crayon, magazine, he espoused these theories and urged American landscape painters to develop their own style and to go directly into nature and paint, leaving behind the studio manipulation of sketches and contrived allegory of European landscape painters.

In 1849, just after the death of Cole, who had died the previous year, Durand, commissioned by art collector Jonathan Sturges, painted Kindred Spirits to immortalize Cole and transcendentalist poet William Cullen Bryant.  The title is from a phrase of a sonnet by John Keats. (1)

Like Cole and Bryant, Durand was deeply religious, and found in nature the manifestation of God and the expression of that relationship through sublime landscape painting.  In Kindred Spirits, Bryant depicted the two very fashionably dressed men standing on a ledge over an abyss where a misstep could land them in a canyon far below.  The day is sunny; the view is both panoramic and intimate and is, in many ways, suggestive of a pleasant outing in the Catskill Mountains.  But atmospheric light countered by heavy shadows and geographical contrasts of flatness and depth create a sense that nature has its own agenda.  The fact that Cole and Bryant are barely discernible and are much diminished by these surroundings is ironic and appropriate.  Although Cole and Bryant were two of the most famous men of their era, Kindred Spirits reflects their humility---their belief that humans were of much less importance than nature, where humans commune with god.  In other words, nature is the primary focus rather than merely serving as a backdrop for human activity.

Because it so aptly embodies the philosophy of the Hudson River School and references the three major exponents of its underlying philosophy, Kindred Spirits is likely the most representative work of the Hudson River School of painters. (1)

After the death of Thomas Cole, Asher Durand became the pre-eminent Hudson River style painter. Of him it was written: "his unconventionalities became new conventions."

In recognition of his increasing reputation, which included writing and teaching as well as painting, he was elected President of the National Academy of Design, serving from 1845 to 1861.  In 1866, his painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon. Three years later, he retreated from the attention he was receiving in New York and moved to his childhood home of Jefferson Village in New Jersey.  He died there in 1886.

Sources:

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Graham Boettcher, 'Asher B. Durand', "American Sublime" by Andrew Wilton & Tim Barringer

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

Carol Vogel, New York Times, May 14, 2005, 'Wal-Mart heiress Is High Bidder for a Durand Painting Sold by the New York Public Library' by Carol Vogel

(1) Kindred Spirits was first in the possession of the family of William Cullen Bryant.  In 1904,  Bryant's daughter, Julia, donated it to the New York Public Library, which offered it for sale in 2005.  Alice Walton of the Walton Family Foundation purchased the work to be the signature piece of a planned Walton American art museum at Crystal Bridges in Walton's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas.


Biography from Pierce Galleries, Inc.:
Asher B. Durand was born in Jefferson, New Jersey in 1796, and he died in South Orange, New Jersey in 1886.  He first learned to engrave in his father’s watch making shop, and in 1812 he apprenticed with the Newark engraver Peter Maverick and became Maverick’s partner in 1817 in an engraving shop named Maverick and Durand.

After Durand completed a large engraving commission for John Trumbull of the "Declaration of Independence" in 1820, he became famous in America for his pure engraving lines and ability to draw accurately.  Within a year he was dubbed “the most famous engraver in America” and set up his own shop in New York City.   In 1825 his Musidora became one of the most important plates of the period, and he became renowned for his incredibly accurate portrait drawings and engravings. During that year he was a banknote engraver with his brother Cyrus Durand.  He was a charter member of the National Academy of Design in New York City and its president from 1845-1861.   Although he painted many prominent citizens’ portraits, he became world renowned for his Hudson River School landscapes.  He is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, Worcester Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and in most leading American museums.

After having an extremely successful career as an engraver, in 1830, Asher B. Durand produced several engraved plates for the magazine The American Landscape to accompany a text by William Cullen Bryant, but when only one issue of the magazine was published, Durand left engraving.   In 1831 he decided to dedicate his life to painting landscapes and genre scenes in oil.  Within a few years he became as famous a landscape painter as he had been an engraver.

It was during the 1830s when Durand and the established, famous landscape painter Thomas Cole befriended one another.   After painting together in the Catskills and along the Hudson, Durand’s early canvases were highly influenced by Cole’s allegorical, imaginary subjects with moralistic themes. In Knickerbocker Magazine (July 1840), a reviewer wrote, “…we predict that Mr. Cole will sooner encounter him (Durand) as a rival than any other artist now among us.”   In that year, Durand’s imaginary landscape paintings Evening of Life and Morning of Life (National Academy of Design collection) drew huge crowds and exuberant admiration.

From 1840-1841, Durand went abroad with John W. Casilear, Thomas P. Rossiter and John F. Kensett.   By this time, he had painted landscapes reminiscent of Thomas Cole’s moralistic observations of nature, but Durand’s canvases were fresher in spirit and more accurate to nature, and Durand’s works had become more highly influenced by the landscape style of the 17th-century French artist Claude Lorrain.   After Thomas Cole’s death in 1848, Durand was acknowledged and applauded as the finest and preeminent landscape painter in America.   To honor Durand’s growing, prestigious reputation, Durand was elected president of the National Academy.  In 1855, Durand wrote nine letters on landscape painting that were published in The Crayon and artists flocked to study with the master and patrons were eager to purchase his work.

Durand’s commonly painted flat ground planes are designed with trees on either side of center and figures, houses, a distant lake and cattle in the foreground, arranged with spatial recession that is logical and reasonable.  Men and nature are balanced within luminous atmosphere, and each is given dignity and respect.   Man and animals do not overpower or hinder the overall resplendence of the landscape, rather they are a natural part of the entirety.   Like most of the Hudson River masters, Durand found spirituality in the natural country setting.

Durand’s reverence for the landscape grew out his belief that “the representation of the work of God in the visible creation [is] independent of man.”   Nature was a visible manifestation of the Deity and represented itself.  The devoutly religious Durand did not want to add or take away from what was the natural setting.  As with many Hudson River School painters, Durand only allowed his imagination to enter his work if it idealized the real or made a landscape’s flora and fauna more beautiful. Wanting to show his optimism toward nature and the goodness of earth’s riches, Durand felt nature gave people models for ethical conduct.

Typical of his work are the New York Historical Society’s Sunset, 1838 or Boston’s Museum of Fine Art’s View in the Catskill, 1844, in which a warm, glowing sun shimmers to show man and nature in harmony with summer foliage.   By the late 1840s, Durand’s work was not as composed and the artist confronted nature more directly and wilderness scenes often replaced rural settings.  By the 1870s, his luminous, harmonious scenes of nature invited the viewer to contemplate the grandeur, beauty and solace found in nature.

By the 1870’s, Durand mastered the painting of tonal colors, suggesting far reaches of landscape space.  He carefully graduated atmospheric perspectives and was subtle at displaying light and shadow within a densely forested landscape.   His overall objective was to have a viewer attain a spiritual and moral elevation while looking at his work.

In 1895, the Grolier Club of New York published a check-list of the engraved work of Asher B. Durand, and his son John wrote his biography.  Among his most famous portraits are those of Edward Everett, Gouverneur Kemble, Christian Gobrecht and other prominent politicians and businessmen.  The New York Historical Society has a set of the early Presidents painted by Durand done from originals by Gilbert Stuart.  Most art critics and historians dub Durand The Father of American Landscape Painting (see Fielding’s, p. 103, 1927) because Durand was one of the first to develop American landscape painting that was different from the dramatic or overtly allegorical style of Thomas Cole (whose work often takes on religious, moral or philosophical messages).

Durand’s paintings were contemplative and quietly interpretive.  As David B. Lawall observed in A.B. Durand, 1796-1886 (1978), for Durand, landscape painting was a moral exercise and through it he sought awareness and perfection.

Most of Durand’s subjects were found in the Catskills and the White Mountains or in the river and pasture lands of the northeastern United States.  Although his paintings are from real settings, he often infused them with romantic or poetic sentiments, but the majority of his work tells of the American experience and feelings of the Hudson River School.

Knickerbocker Magazine (July 1853) and Literary World (April 30, 1853) critiqued that “Durand is always peaceful, quiet, picturesque and beautiful.   No one artist among us had done more for true art than Durand.   He woos us by their gentleness and repose, to love his pictures, rather than by attempting to ‘astonish’ us, and to enforce our admiration [as Cole had done].  Some critics praised Durand’s work as giving hope to the pioneers” (Knickerbocker Magazine, January 1856) because each embellished the glorious, magnificent, peaceful aspects of the American countryside and there was no hint of hostility in any of his canvases.  Durand’s paintings uplift the essence of the natural environment and agriculture.

After 1855, Durand never painted imaginary landscapes.  He preferred painting wooded glades and far-reaching valleys and his views dominated American landscape painting as exemplary in the mid-nineteenth century.  He painting until his death in New York in 1858.

Asher B. Durand is known throughout the art world as The Father of American Landscape Painting and is revered as the finest realistic landscape painter from the Hudson River School.

For references see:

American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Barbara Novak (NY 1969);

Knickerbocker Magazine (vol. 16, July 1840; vol. 39, June 1852; vol. 42, July 1853, vol. 48, July 1856);

Asher B. Durand, A Memorial Address, Daniel Huntington (NY 1887);

Crayon, vol. 1, no. 3, (January 17, 1855);

Craven, Wayne, Asher B. Durand’s imaginary landscapes, Antiques (November 1970);

Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers (1965);

The Life & Times of A.B. Durand, John Durand (NY 1894);

David B. Lawall, A.B. Durand, 1776-1886 (1978).

Submitted by Patricia Jobe Pierce

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, I:
Asher Brown Durand, known as both a painter and engraver, was born in South Orange, New Jersey.  The son of a watchmaker and silversmith, Durand worked for his father before serving a five-year apprenticeship to an engraver, Peter Maverick, in Newark, New Jersey. After completing his apprenticeship, he became a partner in the business.  His first work, the head of an old beggar, attracted the attention of the artist John Trumbull.  Durand’s reputation became firmly established with the publication of his engraving of Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence in 1823.

Between 1821 and 1831, Durand helped found the New York Drawing Association, the National Academy of Design and the Sketch Club.  Also during this period, he formed a partnership with his brother, Cyrus and Charles C. Wright, specializing in the production of bank notes.   In 1832 Durand dissolved his profitable engraving business.   Three years later, he began a short, successful period as a portrait painter.   He painted several of the presidents of the United States and many other men of political and social prominence.

A financial panic in 1837, combined with encouragement from Thomas Cole, led him to try landscape painting.  In 1840 he visited Europe, where he studied the work of the Old Masters; after his return he devoted himself almost entirely to landscape painting.  Durand visited the White Mountains as early as 1839, and again from 1855 to 1857.  The Crayon in November 1856 noted, “Mr. Durand’s sketches of West Campton scenery ... are both larger and of a different character than his previous studies, being almost wholly confined to mountain views.”

Durand became the second president of the National Academy of Design in 1845, a position he held until his resignation in 1861.   In 1847, he helped found the Century Association, and may be called the father of the Hudson River School.  Although there was something hard and unsympathetic about his landscapes, and unnecessary details and trivialities were over-prominent, he was a well-trained craftsman, and his work is marked by sincerity.

Durand spent the rest of his life after 1857 painting in New York City.   He died at South Orange, New Jersey on the 17th of September 1886.

Reference: http://57.1911encyclopedia.org, http://whitemountainart.com

Biography from The Caldwell Gallery - I:
Asher Brown Durand, born in 1796, was best known as the "father" of the Hudson River School of landscape due to his aesthetics and style.  Durand studied with the engraver Peter Maverick from 1812-17 and was made a partner in 1820.  Durand completed an engraving of John Trumbull's historical painting of the "Declaration of Independence", which launched his reputation nationwide.  Durand went on to head three different engraving companies and had many pupils.   In 1835, he gave up the business to devote himself to painting, beginning with portraiture but soon moving to landscapes.

In 1840, Durand toured Europe and then went on a painting excursion to the Adirondacks, after which he turned exclusively to landscapes.  Durand wrote his nine famous "Letters on Landscape Painting", which was printed in The Crayon in 1855.  These letters outlined the principals that characterized the Hudson River School.  He urged students to peruse individual style and turn away from contrived drama.  Durand viewed nature as its own subject, not just scenery.  He believed that one should paint from direct observation, realistically, to reach the spiritual moment caught in nature.  Durand's work reveals atmospheric affects with precise detail, a finished surface and almost invisible brushwork.  Durand died in 1886.

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Asher Durand is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Hudson River School Painters
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Paris Pre 1900



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