Editor's note: The following essay was published on July 14, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of The New-York Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact The New-York Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:
"Heeding the Call of Nature: Asher Brown Durand's Communion with the American Landscape"
Lee A. Vedder
Luce Curatorial Fellow in American Art 
As one of the nation's great museum repositories of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, the New-York Historical Society has no equal when it comes to the extraordinary depth and richness of its holdings of original art works by Asher Brown Durand (1795-1886), who, together with his mentor Thomas Cole (1801-1848), played a leading role in establishing the renowned Hudson River School (Figs. 1-2). The Durand collection, most of which was donated to the Society by the artist's family between 1903 and 1935, features over 500 catalogued art works, including landscape paintings, portraits, historical and genre scenes, plein-air oil sketches, drawings, sketchbooks, photographs, and an extensive collection of the artist's engraved prints. Indeed, nowhere else in the world is the entire trajectory of Durand's accomplished career as an artist represented more comprehensively and in such vivid and vast detail.  Through selected works on canvas and paper in the Society's collection, this essay explores the evolution of Durand's artistic development, most particularly his communion with the American landscape, and the ground-breaking role he played, following the death of Thomas Cole, in furthering the artistic development of the Hudson River School aesthetic. 
Born in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood), New Jersey in 1796, Durand began his career as a fine art and commercial engraver, enjoying considerable success producing banknotes, book and magazine illustrations, portraits, and copies of other artists' works (Figs 3-5).  In the early 1820s, following a five-year apprenticeship with the Newark engraver Peter Maverick, he established himself as one of the country's most accomplished engravers with a commission from the American artist, John Trumbull, to engrave his well-known painting, The Declaration of Independence (1786-95), an enlargement of which the painter had recently executed for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol (1817-1818)(Fig. 6). Riding high on his success, Durand entered into a number of printmaking ventures during the 1820s and early 1830s, including one with his brother Cyrus, specializing in banknotes, and the Durand, Perkins Company, which was dissolved in 1831. 
His success as an engraver notwithstanding, Durand, by the mid 1830s, had turned his attention almost exclusively to painting having received inspiration and encouragement from Thomas Cole, who was by then his good friend and colleague, and from the prominent New York dry goods merchant and art patron, Luman Reed (Fig. 7). Initially, under Reed's patronage, Durand focused his painting efforts on portraiture, soon adding historical subjects and genre scenes to his repertoire as well (Figs. 8-11).  Yet, it was his close kinship with Thomas Cole, nurtured by sketching trips the two artists began taking together to the Adirondack, Catskill, and White Mountains in 1837, that inspired Durand to pursue his true artistic calling: to be a painter of the American landscape.
By the late 1830s, when Durand made the shift solely to landscape painting, Cole had laid the essential groundwork for a distinctly American vision grounded in the exploration of the natural world in all its unbounded glory and in the expression of human concerns relating to God, nature, and morality as well as to the nation's mission and future. In his pictures of American scenery painted in the 1820s and 1830s, Cole extolled the natural beauty and grandeur of the mountain ranges of upstate New York and New England, which he viewed as the "undefiled works" of "God the Creator" (Figs. 12-14). His ambition was to raise landscape painting to a level of unprecedented historical importance, which he achieved by combining an empirical approach, based on direct observation, with a concern for capturing the inherent sacredness of America's natural scenery. In his "Essay on American Scenery," published in 1836, Cole expounded on his spiritual communion with nature, asserting that"the good, the enlightened of all ages and nations, have found pleasure and consolation in the beauty of the rural earth. Prophets of old retired into the solitudes of nature to wait the inspiration of heaventhe wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God." Inspired by his mentor's impassioned plea to heed the spiritual call of nature, Durand pursued his own artistic path in the fifty years that followed, embracing much of Cole's vision in the beginning but ultimately creating landscape paintings that envisaged a communion with the American landscape that distinctly set him apart.
Extolling the nobility of American scenery, redolent of Divine promise, Durand's early easel paintings of bucolic rural life in the East, such as The Solitary Oak of 1844, reflect a romantic side to his communion with nature when Cole's influence, particularly his approach to the pastoral landscape, held sway over his evolving sensibility (Fig. 15). Like many of Durand's early pastorals, The Solitary Oak speaks to the redemptive power of the American countryside that contemporary urban patrons, wedded to a spectacular portrayal of natural scenery replete with poetic and spiritual associations, so craved. As one contemporary art critic noted of the painting, "it seemedas if that landscape alone would be a retreat, a seclusion, a world by itself to retreat into from care or sad thoughts-so mellow and deep was the distance, so true to nature the colouring the drawing, so sweetly poetical the composition." 
With Thomas Cole's untimely death in 1848, Durand gained a greater sense of creative independence as his artistic communion with the American landscape become ever more grounded in the empirical study of nature minus the high levels of poetic allegory and historicism he had absorbed from his mentor. Indeed, the 1850s saw a decided shift in Durand's focus toward a more sensory and immediate aesthetic, guided as it was by his fervent desire to study nature's particulars with a clear, reverent eye and to record them faithfully so as to convey the look and feel of direct experience. One can see this evolution unfolding in scores of studies Durand executed, in both graphite and oil, while exploring the forest interiors and mountain ranges of upstate New York and New England (Figs. 16-19). In these nature studies, detailed renderings of rocks, dense undergrowth, and the intricate foliage, trunks and root structures of trees assume a commanding presence, revealing that, for Durand, nature's simple forms, spontaneously recorded on the spot, imparted not only a sense of grandeur but "lessons of high and holy meaning."  This devout empiricism and precise rendering also informed the large scale compositions he continued to create for the remainder of his career. For paintings such as White Mountain Scenery, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire (1857) and Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George, New York (1875), painted at age 79, just eleven years before his death, Durand drew upon his vast treasury of natural landscape features, recorded on canvas and painstakingly transcribed in his travel sketchbooks, to depict panoramic views that give the viewer the sensation of being there at the site (Figs. 20-24). 
Undoubtedly, as scholars have noted, Durand's communion with nature was as much a spiritual journey as an artistic one, making, in essence, the sketches, drawings, and paintings he produced acts of personal devotion.  His vision of the American landscape captured what William Cullen Bryant, the nature poet and Durand's close friend, had described as "the absence of those tamings and softenings of cultivationa far spread wildness, a look as if the new world was fresher from the Hand of Him who made itabstracting the mind from the associations of human agency" and carrying it "up to the idea of a mightier power and to the great mystery of the origins of things." Durand too, expounded on his artistic vision in his "Letters on Painting," published in the Crayon in 1855, urging artists to "go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape," for there they would "find in the conscientious study of her beauties all the great first principles of art." For Durand, it was "the simple truths of nature," above and beyond established artistic convention, that "constitute[d] the true Religion of Art." Thus, by the mid 1850s, Durand, with his distinct artistic vision, had finally emerged from the shadow of his mentor, Thomas Cole, as an influential artist in his own right. Making his unique mark on American landscape painting, he went on to inspire a second generation of Hudson River School artists to greater heights of artistic achievement.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library extends its appreciation to Ms. Laura Washington of The New-York Historical Society for her help concerning reprinting of this essay and the accompanying texts.
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