Asher B. Durand, Putting His Brush in God's Hand

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) formally invites you to hike into his landscapes. Wear stout shoes. Or Natty Bumppo moccasins. And bring a notebook.

Fifty-seven of his pictures will go on view on Thursday in "Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Step across their gilded frames and you're far from the big city, you're in the once-upon-a-time Hudson River Valley -- a landscape then considered unsullied by the hand of man (Indians did not count). Underfoot are broken branches and frost-cracked, root-wrapped rocks. Above is God's own heaven, glowing its golden glow. This is the forest primeval, America's own Eden, 19th-century version. Please pay close attention. In Durand's careful paintings there are lessons being taught.

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. Nor was he its star painter. Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was its flashing virtuoso. But Durand was the dean.

Durand was no Bohemian. As good deans are supposed to be, he was respectable and clubbable and charming to the rich. And he thrived in institutions. In 1825, at the organizational meeting of the New York Drawing Association -- the first professional organization for the artists of the city -- Durand was in the chair. He also helped to found the National Academy of Design (the landscape painters' power base), was elected as its president and held that post for 16 years. The 10 "Letters on Landscape Painting," which he published in the Crayon art journal in 1855, were his movement's manifesto. When young Parisian painters fashioned a new style whose swiftness of attack and summarizing brushwork made his seem fuddy-duddy, Durand refused to budge. He adhered to his principles: It is God who made the universe. Nature is a Scripture. The pious landscape painter who learns to read it rightly is thus a kind of priest.

George Washington was still alive when Durand was born in what today is Maplewood, N.J. One is not surprised to learn that his father was both a farmer and a watchmaker, for both of those old skills, one rooted in the earth, the other in the workings of miniature machinery, are sensed within his art.

When Asher was 16 he was apprenticed to an engraver, Peter Maverick of Newark, who specialized in banknotes. Durand quickly proved himself a master of the discipline. He also reproduced well-known paintings of the time. The steel plates he cut by hand, and the paper prints he pulled from them -- a number are on view -- are immaculately right. When Durand turned to oil paint he wielded his brushes with similar precision.

High-definition painting is a lot less common now than it was in his day. This is particularly true of landscape. Landscape painting isn't dead, but, of late, it's gone all blurry. That green patch is a tree in leaf, that brownish one a fallen branch. Durand would have had none of that. He had no interest in guesswork. He studied until he knew. Even at a distance Durand knew the difference between a pine and a larch, an ash and an oak. He knew the sharpness of their needles, the notches of their leaves, the textures of their barks. He knew basalts from gneiss.

The depth of Durand's knowledge ennobles his best art. Look, for instance, at his "Rocky Cliff" (circa 1860), on loan from Winston-Salem. Its rocks are wholly right. Their weight is right, their cracks are right. Equally correct are the feathers of green ferns that grow out of their clefts, and the colors of their lichens. A somewhat churchy mood music sometimes mars his larger works, but his small studies, like this one, have lost none of their impact. They still feel like the truth.

Or part of it. Durand died at 90. He painted through the Civil War with its industrial-scale slaughter. Cholera epidemics, draft riots, recessions and go-getters' depredations roiled his Manhattan. He must have been aware of the merciless exploitation of the landscape that he loved, of logging and oily smoke and wholesale pollution. But no hint of this turmoil is apparent in his art.

Though he claimed to be attuned to truth, Durand was somehow able to shut out the disturbing. Eventually this irritates. The viewer grows suspicious. The noble forest trees that he painted with such skill begin to look like stage props decoratively placed. His beneficent sunsets begin to seem too mellow, his farmsteads too Arcadian. The longer that one wends one's way deep into his paintings, especially the larger ones, the less one wholly trusts them. They seem too good to be true.

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