The National Collection of Fine Arts has purchased an important early landscape -- "Dover Plain, Dutchess County, New York" -- by Asher B. Durand, the least histrionic master of the Hudson River School.

The painting, dated 1848, cost $250,000. The Smithsonian Institution put up half the money, drawing on a special fund that it has set aside for "outstanding" acquisitions. The other $125,000 was provided as a matching gift by Smithsonian patron Thomas M. Evans, chairman of the Crane Co., New York.

Most landscapes of the time, with their shattered trees, jagged rocks and exaggerated light effects, were vastly more theatrical than Durand's calm panorama. His unpretentious painting of a hazy afternoon does not urge the viewer to contemplate mortality or confront the sublime.

NCFA director Joshua C. Taylor describes his new Durand as "Idyllic -- but not ideal."

Durand helped change the way the painters of his day approached the New World's land. European estheticians, believing that the duty of the painter was to convey noble thoughts, had long looked down on landscape as a lesser form of art. Though Durand's friend Thomas Cole (1801-48), the so-called "Father of the Hudson River School," had faith in landscape's virtues, Cole too was convinced that the mission of the painter was to stir the viewer's soul. The "high moral capabilities" of the landscape genre were "demonstrated," wrote Durad, in Cole's dramatic pictures.

Cole's paintings seem to preach. Durand's are more calm. "Durand," says Taylor, "saw nature as a physical manifestation of spirit. Nature needed no dramatization. His early works are mannered, but by the time he painted this one he was doing more looking than fabricating. It is an astonishing picture from the point of view of observation."

While other 19th-century American landscape painters -- for instance, Frederick Church (1826-1900) -- searched the world for drama, Durand was quite content to portray the domestic landscape that he knew. While Church portrayed volcanos, the torrents of Niagara and the icebergs of the North, in "Dover Plain" Durand shows us grazing cows, farmers in the field and children picking berries.

In the little figure group at the lower left-hand corner, a young woman shades her eyes to gaze into the distance. "Durand's nature," Taylor notes, "is smiling and productive. The children picking berries are nourishing their bodies; the young woman who is gazing, as the viewer gazes, is nourishing her soul."

No American museum offers to its visitors a survey of American landscape painting richer than that now displayed at the National Collection. "I don't know why, but most museums are afraid to hang paintings by subject," says Taylor. The new Durand is now on view amidst the other landscapes on the museum's second floor.