Now we know how Egyptians feel about the Rosetta Stone and why the Greeks fume at mention of the Elgin Marbles. Our treasure has been lost, and we — those of us with the Hudson at our backs as we cast our gaze over the Catskills — feel particularly diminished. Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits has been sold down river. In a Sotheby’s auction on behalf of the New York Public Library, the famous landscape was hammered down at $35 million, the largest sum ever paid for an American painting, to Alice L. Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. It is headed for Bentonville, Arkansas, corporate headquarters of the retailing empire, for display at “Crystal Bridges,” a museum scheduled to open in 2009.
Moving a Catskills painting to the Ozarks seems comical, and losing a regional monument hurts. But most of what we are feeling is referred pain, the cultural confirmation of what the marketplace has been telling us for decades now: the small cities, towns, and villages of the Northeast have become vast grazing lands, colonies for plunder by more prosperous sections of the country. We have been losing industry, jobs, population, and brainpower — our children cannot return home from college to work where they grew up — as if we were bathing in a tub with a slow leak, wondering why we are feeling chilled. Our cultural artifacts seep into the heartland via Ebay. The time is not distant when our steepled churches and clapboard and fieldstone houses will survive only as part of a historical theme park for the rest of the nation, a Yosemite of quaint lifestyle and vernacular, a time capsule of an America that used to be.
Writing a profile of Asher Durand in these pages last month*, I suggested that Kindred Spirits is more an important painting than a great one. Commissioned in 1849, it memorialized not only Thomas Cole, the pioneering artist who had died the previous year, and William Cullen Bryant, the poet who delivered his eulogy, but also the American wilderness itself, at a time when it was being threatened by the industrial revolution. From Cedar Grove, his home in the village of Catskill, Cole lamented the pillaging of the hickory forests by the tanning industry, which also polluted his beloved Catskill Creek. Durand’s painting was an exercise in nostalgia, a valedictory for a time fast slipping away when Americans might enjoy a direct spiritual relationship with nature. As Bryant wrote, in “A Forest Hymn”:
The groves were God’s first temples.
Ere man learned
To hew the shaft and lay the architrave
And spread the roof above them--ere he framed
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back
The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood
Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down,
And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks
Miss Walton may hope for some of this effect from Moshe Safdie’s design for Crystal Bridges, a glass-and wood construct traversing a stream. Fat chance.
Although the painting’s title references Cole and Bryant, Kindred Spirits might as easily describe the odd couple of art and money, as nettlesome to Cole and Durand in their day as it is stimulating to New York and Arkansas today. Were it not for their common patrons — Luman Reed and Jonathan Sturges — neither painter would have been able to stay at his easel and the nation would today be immeasurably poorer. In fact, it was Reed who kept Cole busy with commissions and Sturges who backed Durand to paint Kindred Spirits as a gift for Bryant. In presenting the picture to him, Sturges wrote:
MY DEAR SIR: Soon after you delivered your oration on the life and death of our lamented friend Cole, I requested Mr. Durand to paint a picture in which he should associate our departed friend and yourself as kindred spirits. I think the design, as well as the execution, will meet your approbation, and I hope that you will accept the picture from me as a token of gratitude for the labor of love performed on that occasion. Very truly yours,
This is very different from buying the paintings of dead artists at auction. Miss Walton is no Sturges or Reed, not even a Medici, no matter her largesse to the New York Public Library via Sotheby or her civic beneficence to Bentonville. A buyer at auction may conspire to benefit art but seldom artists — except insofar as they are safely dead, capping the supply — and thus represent reasonable investment, not rank speculation. An auction-house record may help to validate neglected artists (Roy Lichtenstein, recently) or whole movements (the Hudson River School languished in estimation until 1979, when Frederic Church’s Icebergs brought $2.5 million, then the highest price for an American painting).
For more than a century zealots of all stripes, from the right no less than from the left, have railed against chain stores for choking the local and regional flavor out of American life and squashing indigenous small business. It is hard to imagine today, when we have warm fuzzy feelings at the mention of the vanished five-and-dime, that millions were violently opposed to Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, even Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. I will not toss historical perspective overboard to excoriate Wal-Mart for its business, real-estate, aesthetic, and labor practices … it is too easy a target.
So what has been gained and what lost, and by whom? Oddly, New York City and its great research library are huge beneficiaries and thus, indirectly, so is the worldwide community of scholars. The New York Public Library is not, after all, a museum, and probably ought not to have held this painting any longer, even though it had been donated by Bryant’s daughter; $35 million will buy a lot of books and research materials, and that is the proper business of the institution. Oh, and those collectors who hold Hudson River School paintings, well, they are winners, at least on paper.
Arkansas and Bentonville are both winners, too, for they will now be on the cultural map; it will be harder to think of L’il Abner as a snap response to a question about Ozark culture. Folks in Bentonville have every right to see good and great art in person; anyway, how many New Yorkers have ever seen Kindred Spirits except in reproduction?
Miss Walton is a winner, because it didn’t dent her pocketbook to place a sealed bid that was way out ahead of the combined effort of the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery. Wal-Mart’s heiress is our sad country’s new royalty.
So who are the losers? You and I, neighbor, you and I.
* See story immediately below.