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Madrid exhibition

The american landscapes of Asher B. Durand (1796–1886)

October 1, 2010 – January 9, 2011

Durand and european art

Catskill Clove, Nueva York, 1864. óleo sobre lienzo, 38,1 x 61 cm.
Asher B. Durand.
Catskill Clove, Nueva York, 1864
The New–York Historical Society

When we pick up a book or magazine that deals with American landscape painting, and more particularly I think, with the Hudson River School, we are very apt to be confronted with clichés such as Durand's The Old Oak, the ancestor of today's outdoor Greenwich Village exhibition piece, still to be found on insurance calendars and in various parlors throughout America. It is tightly drawn, smooth–surfaced, meticulous in detail, essentially bucolic in mood, and even complete with bovine inhabitant. But Durand could also paint a study from nature such as Rocks and Trees where he breaks completely clear of the clichés of the Hudson River School formulae and establishes himself quite firmly as a realist who was acutely conscious of the objective truths of plein–air reality. Durand called this entire series "Studies from Nature," and we know that they were executed for the most part in the summer months of the 1850s, in the mountains of New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

We are reminded here of certain works by Courbet, such as his Cour des Conches, 1864, in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Besançon, which was shown in this country in the large Courbet retrospective of 1960 in Boston and Philadelphia. Nonetheless, it would be a bit presumptuous to introduce the Courbet here as an example of influence, in either direction. Durand made only one trip to Europe, in 1840–41, and he spent only a few weeks in Paris, on his way to and from Rome. Courbet, in 1840, was just arriving in Paris, and he was, at that time, painting mostly copies from the Old Masters and religious themes, rather than landscapes. I have found no evidence of any contact between Durand and Courbet in 1840. I think rather that we are dealing here with the elusive and yet provocative problem of artistic affinity, a curious parallel of development proceeding simultaneously on both sides of the ocean.

Let's observe The Old Oak, reminiscent of Claude in its distribution of forms and light, gives way now to the immediacy of the happened upon, and the closeness of the view establishes the spectator more directly on the spot. The suddenness of the moment is conveyed by the quick spontaneity of stroke: slickness is abandoned for the sketch-like and the scumbled, smooth finish is replaced by tactile pigment. Impastos of light, falling on rock forms, become at once sun and stone. Like Courbet, Durand has taken advantage of the textural suggestions of rocks to indulge a taste for tactile pigment, loosely applied in the broken stroke of a proto-Impressionist. But within the single painting, Durand has incorporated elements of his proto-Impressionist style with an absorption with light that is closer in feeling to that of the Luminists. If we say that Impressionism is the objective response to the visual sensation of light, then perhaps we can say that Luminism is the poetic response to the felt sensation.

Durand's "Letters on Landscape Painting" are composed of the same mixture of the real and the ideal that characterized many of his own works, as well as the taste of his American public. Sunlight, for example, was at once to him a color phenomenon–a type of the divine attribute—and an element that "imparts a cheerful sentiment to the picture." His reference to "atmospheric space," [and to] its complexity "when considered under the influence of a variable sky, cloud shadows, and drifting vapor–all the subtleties of light, with color subject to the media through which it passes, and the intricacy of reflections from accidental causes ..." [all this] bring to mind the Impressionist concern with mist and changing light. Durand was, in effect, advising that same study of transitory effects that was formulated by the Impressionists into a working theory. The letters reveal that Durand was, in addition, concerned with the neutralizing effect of light upon color, and with the variety of greens in nature when perceived in sunlight.

Montañas Adirondack, Nueva York, c 1870. óleo sobre lienzo, 38,7 x 60,3 cm.
Asher B. Durand.
Adirondack Mountains, New York, c. 1870
The New–York Historical Society

Here again, a good case could be drawn for a parallel with French Impressionist theory. It seems obvious that not only in France, but in America as well, light and atmosphere were key preoccupations for the mid-century landscapists. It is perhaps equally obvious that each continent forged its own artistic response to the newfound revelations of the natural world.

Not only in the Studies from Nature, already considered, but in several extraordinary sketches as well, simply executed in freely brushed sepia, Durand reveals a spontaneous grasp of atmosphere that suggests close affinities with that master of the painterly sketch, Peter Paul Rubens. That this master should have inspired not only a Durand, but the father of Impressionist color theory, Delacroix, seems of some importance in a consideration of interrelationships between French and American painting at the mid-century.

That Durand especially singled out Rubens and the British watercolorists for praise bespeaks an eye for painterly freedom in color and atmosphere. Perhaps Durand would have painted his "Studies from Nature" anyway, just from his own response to the effects of light upon the trees and rocks of his summer habitats. But he may have gained confidence for the light freedom of his stroke from the knowledge that he was in masterly company. And in so doing, he brought the development of art in America to another moment in time when artistic threads could extend across the Atlantic.

(Extracted from Modern Durand Scholarship Begins: Asher B. Durand and European Art (1962), by Barbara Novak, in the catalogue. This was the first text written on Durand.)