“Paint and repaint until you are sure the work represents the model—not that it merely resembles it.” —Asher B. Durand
Today is the birthday of Asher Brown Durand, born August 21, 1796. Durand is the creator of one of Crystal Bridges’ most well-known and beloved paintings: Kindred Spirits. The work is a tribute to painter and dear friend of Durand, Thomas Cole, upon his death in 1848. The painting depicts Cole, with his sketchbook and recorder, standing on a stone promontory with poet and critic William Cullen Bryant, who was also a close friend of Cole’s. The landscape around them is based on that of Kaaterskill Clove, a gorge in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The title is drawn from the final line in a poem by John Keats (see below).
Asher Brown Durand lived nearly his entire life in Maplewood, New Jersey, where he was born. He began his career as an engraver, but turned to painting full-time when he was commissioned in 1835 by art patron Lumen Reed to produce portraits of all seven of the US presidents. It is through Reed that Durand came to know and become friends with Thomas Cole, who also enjoyed Reed’s patronage. When Reed died unexpectedly in 1836, Cole and Durand were drawn closer together, and soon became fast friends. They were united in their shared gift for landscape painting, and by their love of the outdoors. They would regularly take painting and drawing excursions together, which Durand referred to as “hard-work-play.” The two artists became the standard bearers for the Hudson River School.
Curator Manuela Well-Off-Man said: “Durand, who was one of the more religious members of the Hudson River School, believed that God was in nature and that painting nature was a way of worshiping God. He and his fellow Hudson River School artists thought art should be truthfully represent nature but their landscapes should also reflect artists’ emotional responses to the beauty of nature through the use of light and their composition.”
By 1840, Durand and Cole were popularly considered to be the two finest landscape painters in the United States, and the press imagined a friendly competition between the friends for the top seat. The two artists did differ somewhat in their styles, though both worked in a highly naturalistic style. Cole’s landscapes represented the sublime: his sweeping vistas and romantic perspectives were often metaphorical. Durand, however, favored the more pastoral approach, often using a vertical format like that in Kindred Spirits, a composed landscape, and more domestic scenes and figures.
Durand was among the co-founders of the New York Drawing Association (later the National Academy of Design), and served as president of the institution for 16 years, beginning in 1845. When Cole died, the association asked William Cullen Bryant, another close friend of Cole’s, to deliver a memorial address in his honor. Arts patron Jonathan Sturges then commissioned Durand to create a painting memorializing the two men’s friendship as a gift for Bryant. The work also references Durand and Cole’s own friendship: the recorder Cole holds is a nod to the two artists’ mutual love of music—Durand referred to their friendship as “‘C major’—D flat” (Ferber, 2008).
After the passing of Thomas Cole, Durand was left the undisputed leader of American landscape painting. Kindred Spirits is not only his tribute to his dear departed friend and colleague, it is also a testament to Durand’s own mastery of the genre, as well as his expertise in painting portraits and figures. The painting also marks a turning point in Durand’s career. As the art world moved increasingly toward realistic landscape, the composed landscape—imaginary landscapes composed by the artist for maximum impact—fell out of favor. Durand began to focus his skill on depicting geological formations and plants in rich, realistic detail, and rarely created composed scenes.
“After Durand painted Kindred Spirits, he published some of his new ideas in his “Letters on Landscape Painting” in the Crayon Magazine in 1855,” said Well-Off-Man. “In these letters, Durand urged American artists to develop their own style and paint outdoors, directly from nature, instead of working in the studio with ‘manipulated’ (composed) sketches and copying European painters, who incorporated allegories in their landscapes.”
O solitude! if I must with thee dwell, Let it not be among the jumbled heap Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,- Nature’s observatory – whence the dell, Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell, May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep ’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell. But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee, Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind, Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d, Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be Almost the highest bliss of human-kind, When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee. —John Keats
Note: Much of the information for this post was gleaned from Linda Ferber’s essay in Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, published by the Brooklyn Museum. The book also includes the full text of Durand’s “Letters on Landscape Painting.” This book, and other materials on the life and work of Durand, Cole, and the other Hudson River School artists, is available in the Crystal Bridges Library.