Distilled Spirit: Asher Durand
In the first half of April 2005 a headline in the New York Times caught my eye: “New York Public Library to Sell Major Artworks to Raise Funds.” The Library’s president, Paul LeClerc, said that it had little choice but to divest itself of art that might bring $50 to $75 million at auction, given the soaring cost of books, the city and state cutbacks, and the shrinkage of the library’s endowment in a seesaw stock market. Of the nineteen pieces slated to go up at Sotheby’s, including two Gilbert Stuart portraits of George Washington, only one brought to me a pang of regret: Kindred Spirits, a large oil by Asher Durand of his friends Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant that had long adorned the central hall outside Room 315, the main reading room in which I have researched happily for decades.
Now the other shoe has dropped. On May 12, in a silent auction in which the Metroplitan Museum and National Gallery collaborated to form a competitive bid, Kindred Spirits was sold for $35 million, the highest amount ever paid for an American painting, to Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton. She intends to exhibit the painting at a new museum to be completed in 2009 near corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.
But Kindred Spirits merits our care not merely for sentimental reasons. Durand painted it in 1849, one year after Bryant had delivered the eulogy at Cole’s funeral. The three had known each other as early as 1825, when Bryant had been a disgruntled lawyer with literary ambition, Cole an aspiring painter new to New York, and Durand an established engraver just coming off a three-year, $3,000 commission to engrave a steel plate from John Trumbull’s painting The Declaration of Independence. In that year Durand, Trumbull, and painter William Dunlap each paid now legendary visits to Cole in his Greenwich Street studio and each, awed by the newcomer’s Turner-like grandeur, came away with a painting under his arm. From this visit may be dated the birth of the Nativist style of landscape painting, even though Cole was not native-born and had no followers until the next decade.
By the time Kindred Spirits was completed, Bryant was now a noted editor, an advocate for the construction of a Central Park in New York, and a poet famous for his deep attachment to nature, particularly in Thanatopsis, a poem so long loved that I was compelled to memorize it in high school. Cole’s gorgeous if sometimes clunkily allegorical landscapes had made him the paramount American artist of his day, creating a craze for the genre in a manifest-destiny-mad nation that had never valued any art but portraiture. And Durand, the featured character in this column (look for Cole and Bryant to follow), had exchanged his graver for the brush in 1836 and was now set to succeed Cole as the spiritual leader of the burgeoning Hudson River School.
Kindred Spirits depicts Cole and Bryant on a rock ledge overlooking two Hudson River shrines, the Kaaterskill Falls and the Kaaterskill Clove, rendered contiguous in the painting as they are not in nature. Although Durand thought of himself as a master of detail, one who delighted in the slightest twists, turns, and gestures of nature, he was not insensitive to hidden meaning: later he would write, “The artist as a poet will have seen more than the mere matter of fact but no more than is there and that another may see if it is pointed out to him.” Yet for Durand to have depicted Cole, in a tribute to his friend’s art, as pointing to an impossible geological construct represents a level of abstraction that might be viewed as prefiguring Picasso.
In truth Durand had long been distilling spirit and meaning from the quotidian press of material existence. We tend to regard him today as a sweetly primitive painter of sylvan glades and bucolic vistas – of a lesser ambition than Cole and Church, less technically accomplished than Kensett and Gifford, and less visionary than Bierstadt and Moran. I suggest, however, that Durand’s journey in art – from the practical craft of engraving through the way stations of portraiture and genre paintings (“fancy subjects,” as they were called in his day) to a depiction of the divine hand at work in landscape – makes him a greater artist than all of these arguably greater painters.
Asher Brown Durand was born in August 21, 1796 in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood), New Jersey. The son of a watchmaker and silversmith, he evinced an early interest in the meticulous flourishes and curlicues his father etched on watchcases and so at age 15 he was apprenticed to engraver Peter Maverick in Newark. Durand soon became a master of his trade, relegating his boss to lettering while he engraved the figures. It is hard to imagine today, but before the advent in 1880 of the halftone process of reproducing photographs, engraved images were the mass media of their era and just about the only way to make money from art, either as the painter of the original or the delineator in copper or steel. Moreover, engraving in the hands of a skilled practitioner was regarded in its day as a fine art, not merely a mechanical one, and thus engravers were invited to join the artistic societies alongside painters and sculptors.
Durand’s commission for the Trumbull plate made his reputation but fractured his partnership with Maverick, in which neither had prospered. The completion of the work in 1823 enabled Durand to take an active part in the New York art community, helping to organize the New-York Drawing Association in 1825 (reconfigured three years later as the National Academy of Design). “His higher aspirations for art were constantly clogged by servile work,” according to an 1880 profile in the Times (unsigned but very likely penned by the artist’s son John), “such as the composition and engraving of business cards…. The human figure, an approach to the nude, in all its chastity, he thought worthy of his skill. There was no model, no painting to copy, so he made a design for himself, engraved it, and, in 1825, the Musidora was produced. It was not appreciated at the time, though today amateurs and print-collectors are eager to obtain it. ‘It never paid me the price of even the copper,’ remarked Durand….”
In 1827 he joined forces with his brother Cyrus, who perfected a geometric lathe for swirling uncopyable linear whirlpools onto banknotes, a venture made profitable by the dissolution of the National Bank two years before and the instant need for every local bank to design its own distinctive currency. (Durand’s influence may still be seen in the vignettes adorning stock certificates, that weird subgenre in which classical elements contend with locomotives, cattle, and power lines.) Prosperity beckoned as demand for his services in the commercial sector grew.
Yet Durand knew by now that his vocation was to be that of a creative artist, not a glorified tradesman. And he longed to test his mettle once more with the human figure. Determined to work from a superior rendition of the nude than the one he had drawn for Musidora, he purchased Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, exhibited scandalously in New York in 1816 (separate exhibitions for men and for women) and long since under wraps. The result, published in 1835, was Durand the engraver’s masterpiece, in many ways superior to the painting from which it sprang.
“Engraving alone he was sure did not give sufficient outlet,” wrote the Times scribe in 1880. “It was a subsidiary art, which was not called to originate. From its nature it had to be passive. The love of color, which was born in him, wanted another expression than in black and white.” As The New-York Mirror wrote in May 1836, “Mr. Durand has almost relinquished the graver. Perhaps he thinks he cannot go beyond his Ariadne. No one else can.”
With the encouragement of his friend and patron Luman Reed, Durand ended his engraving career. Forty-five years later, he spoke with heartfelt gratitude of Reed, “who first told him to put aside forever the copper and steel plate; to quit the close work-room; and in the wide, broad fields, in the open air, to open his sketch-book, and in it, with a free pencil, catch each twist of limb and each crevice of bark in the spreading oak.” Reed commissioned from Durand portraits of the nation’s first eight Presidents, genre paintings based on Irving’s History of New-York, even panels for the doors to his gallery (Durand painted four and so did Cole). Incredibly, almost all of Luman Reed’s collection may still be viewed in his reconstructed gallery at the New-York Historical Society.
As James Flexner wrote, “portraiture was for Durand, despite his great ability in the mode, only a stepping stone that bridged the gap between his early activity as an engraver and his life’s work as a landscapist.” An 1837 sketching trip to Schroon Lake in the company of Cole confirmed Durand in his allegiance to nature. His whole life long to that point, on Sundays Durand had not attended church, “the better to indulge reflection unrestrained under the high canopy of heaven,” he recalled in later years. “This mode of passing the Sabbath became habitual with me in early life.” Thereafter, as a landscapist he entered into a tacit pact with God to depict His handiwork through his own, the better to apprehend Him.
Durand died on September 17, 1886, on the family property in Maplewood where he had been born 90 years earlier. His long life had been an exemplar of the uniquely American path to spiritualism through pragmatism.