A July 1 Style article incorrectly said that the painting "Kindred Spirits" would be on display at the National Gallery for seven months. The Asher Durand painting will be on display until February 2007. (Published 7/2/2005)
One of New York's cultural treasures, a painting recently auctioned for $35 million after considerable teeth-gnashing by the city's cultural elite, goes on display today at the National Gallery of Art.
Asher Durand's "Kindred Spirits," an American masterpiece that hung in the New York Public Library for more than a century, was snapped up by Alice Walton, through the Walton Family Foundation (a byproduct of the Wal-Mart empire). The gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were unsuccessful bidders at the auction.
Walton has loaned the 1849 painting to the National Gallery, where it will be on view in the West Building for seven months. The canvas will eventually wind up at a museum complex that the Walton family is building in Bentonville, Ark.
"It is an icon of the Hudson River School," said Franklin Kelly, the National Gallery's senior curator of American and British paintings. The Hudson River School was a mid-19th century movement that depicted the untamed woods of New York and other places in romantic, rustic ways.
"Kindred Spirits" shows Thomas Cole, the American artist and the style's main proponent, and William Cullen Bryant, the esteemed poet, at the edge of a precipice in the Catskills Mountains, their walking sticks in hand. The painting is a tribute to their friendship, but also to the idealized nature that they saluted in their art.
Generations of New Yorkers passed the painting as they used the vaulted Fifth Avenue reading room. Commissioned in 1848, the painting was given by Bryant's family to the New York library in early 1904. Losing it to Arkansas touched off a cultural skirmish.
"The sale of this Durand is poignant," wrote critic Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times. "It's well and good that a museum may someday spring up in Arkansas to show Durand's painting. But New Yorkers might ponder whether there was an alternative to its ending up there."
In the New York Observer, Michael M. Thomas took the library to task for the sale, arguing that part of the city's history was being squandered. " 'Kindred Spirits' belongs here; it's part of this city, part of us," wrote Thomas. And a writer for the New York Sun said the sale was "quite frankly, New York's most egregious act of self-desecration since the demolition of Pennsylvania Station."
The Arkansas newspapers shot back, defending the region and Alice Walton. "We got a real kick out of Alice Walton's buying that fancy-shmancy Hudson River School painting right out from under the snooty noses of those big city types," said the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in an editorial.
The figures of Cole and Bryant are not the centerpiece of the picture or the strict focus of "Kindred Spirits." Tree branches loom over their heads, providing a bridge between the rocks. A waterfall is a graceful touch in the background. Water seems to move among the boulders. Mountains fade into the background, as light pierces the center of the scene.
"Durand perfected two standard formats of the Hudson River School," Kelly said. "First is the vertical forest interior; second is the depiction of more panoramic and extensive landscape vistas."
Durand, a native of New Jersey, was a successful engraver before he was inspired by Cole and turned to painting in the 1830s. A leader among landscape painters, he wrote a definitive guide to the principles of the Hudson River School in 1855.
Walton, one of the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, is a member of the National Gallery's Trustees Council.
After the gallery's showing, the painting is scheduled to be included in a 2007 retrospective of Durand's work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. After that, it goes to Arkansas, where the Walton-funded museum is expected to be completed in 2009.