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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Asher B. Durand

The Signing of the Declaration of Independence,
Painting by John Turnbull,
Engraving by Asher B. Durand, 1823
 It's not unusual for an artist to begin in one medium and find a great deal of success, only to feel unfulfilled and wish for something more challenging and enjoyable. That would pretty much be the case for a young engraver named Asher B. Durand. Born in 1796, by the 1830s, Durand was considered the best engraver in the United States. He became wealthy doing plates for bank notes, stocks, bonds, and all manner of commercial documents. In addition, he was also quite successful in creating etchings of others artists' famous paintings such as John Vanderlyn's Ariadne, and in particular, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence.   

Durand got his chance to try his hand at painting when, in 1834, he was commissioned by Luman Reed to do a series of oil portraits of the first seven presidents of the United States. Reed himself is notable in American art history as being the first collector of work by exclusively American artists, having sold off earlier purchases of European masters in favor of work by Durand, Thomas Cole, and William Sidney Mount. It was Reed, in fact, who had indulged Thomas Cole in painting his Course of Empire for the private art gallery in the new home he was building. At any rate, following the successful completion of the presidential series, Durand was emboldened to try landscapes. His naturalistic style and engraver's eye for detail caused him to quickly become this country's predominant landscape painter in this country as well. 

Kindred Spirits, 1848,
Asher B. Durand
  In 1848, upon the death of Durand's friend, Thomas Cole, Jonathan Sturges, a business partner of Luman Reed's (who had also died), commissioned Durand to do a commemorative painting. The result was perhaps the foremost painting of the Hudson River School, Kindred Spirits.  The painting is not a large one, barely more than three feet square. It depicts a rocky stream flowing down through the Catskills, primeval forest vegetation, and an outcropping of rock upon which stand Thomas Cole and his poet friend, William Cullen Bryant, also an ardent nature lover.  This single painting sums up much of what Americans felt for their country, its landscape, and it's art during the nineteenth century. It hangs today, not in an art museum, but in the New York Public Library.

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