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Madrid exhibition

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

October 1, 2010 – January 9, 2011

A life in art

Asher B. Durand - Autorretrato
William Jewett.
Asher Brown Durand, c. 1819.
The New–York Historical Society

George Washington was president of the United States when Asher B. Durand was born in 1796 in the New Jersey hamlet of Jefferson Village. After a five-year engraving apprenticeship in nearby Newark, Durand relocated across the Hudson River to New York City in 1817. There he lived and worked for five decades before returning to New Jersey to spend his final years on the family farm. By then he was revered by many as a living ancestor figure of American art history. When he died in 1886 at the age of ninety, America's identity was secure in the world, and his works, and especially his landscapes, which had done so much to define that identity, were enshrined in the collections of the New-York Historical Society.

Durand was essentially self-taught as a painter of portraits and landscapes, finding his models mostly in the paintings he reproduced as engravings. He learned European academic traditions while he adapted their iconography to his banknotes and sketched from classical casts at The American Academy of the Fine Arts, in New York. The metropolis, already flourishing as the nation's center of trade, finance, publishing, and culture, presented an environment in which both patrons and institutions like the New-York Historical Society, the National Academy of Design, and the Sketch Club (today known as The Century Association) emerged during the first quarter of the nineteenth century to support the arts. Durand had ties to all of these during his two decades as an engraver, serving commerce through his role in creating banknotes and serving the communities of artists and patrons by reproducing the paintings and portraits they created and owned. The aspiring artist served himself as well, preparing for his successive careers as a portrait and landscape painter though the careful study of colleagues' paintings, often by frequenting their studios or the parlors of their owners.

Paleta y pinceles de Asher B. Durand
Asher B. Durand
Palette and Brushes of Asher B. Durand, before 1879
The New–York Historical Society

The Studies from Nature and the large exhibition pictures Durand composed from them in his New York studio demonstrated for his fellow American artists the range of landscape possibilities as well as some strategies for incorporating the discoveries of plein-air study into formal compositions. His towering reputation in the 1840s and 1850s rested upon masterly compositions that refer both to venerable landscape traditions and to the direct experience of painting in the field. These include The Solitary Oak, 1844, his first heroic tree "portrait" in which a giant gnarled oak is silhouetted again the sunset.

Durand's maturity spanned four productive decades of recording and interpreting the American landscape. He also rose to the top of his profession, becoming president of the National Academy of Design in 1845 and, after Cole's untimely death in 1848, assuming leadership of what is known today as the Hudson River School. In 1855, at the high point of his career as both artist and artistic leader, Durand summarized his landscape practice in the famous "Letters on Landscape Painting." His meditations on the spiritual significance of Nature were combined with practical advice to the novice about learning how to draw and paint landscape.

Durand's final decades were equally productive. In the 1860s and 1870s Lake George and the Adirondack Mountains were frequent destinations for the artist, who by then usually traveled with his devoted children. Brilliant little paintings like Adirondack Mountains confirm that Durand had lost none of his appetite for plein-air work.

(Extracted from Introduction. Durand: A Life in Art, by Linda S. Ferber, in the catalogue)