Asher B. Durand

Artist Biography

Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painter, Engraver, and Leader of the Hudson River School

By Margarita Karasoulas

Renowned for his reputation as one of the most important landscape painters in nineteenth-century American art, Asher B. Durand is best known as the leader of the Hudson River School and co-founder of the National Academy of Design.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Born in 1796 in Jefferson Village, NJ, Asher Brown Durand was the eighth child of Rachel and John Durand. Throughout his childhood, Durand worked closely with his father, a watchmaker and silversmith, before beginning an apprenticeship under the engraver Peter Maverick in Newark, NJ in 1812. After only five years, he advanced within the ranks and became Maverick’s co-partner, founding a branch of the business in New York City. Though the partnership dissolved in 1820, he would soon form his own lucrative banknote, commercial engraving, and printing company with his brother Cyrus.1 Durand quickly gained national recognition as an engraver and made profound contributions to the iconography of the paper money then in distribution, using classical motifs and contemporary references of political and military heroes that remain an integral part of our national currency. In 1823 he completed an important commission by John Trumbull to engrave the Declaration of Independence, a project that earned him fame and substantiated his position in the art world.

At the apogee of a commercially successful career as an engraver, Durand’s interests shifted to painting. Largely self-taught, he studied oil portraits and prints, attended the anatomical lectures of Dr. Wright Post, and drew from casts of classical sculpture at the American Academy of Fine Arts.2 Under the auspices of Luman Reed, the period’s most influential patron, Durand’s artistic production commenced with genre subjects and portraits, which dominated his early exhibitions at the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design He received particular acclaim for his portraits and was commissioned to paint some of the nation’s most influential political figures including Senator Henry Clay, ex-President James Madison, and President Andrew Jackson.3 His early works of the 1820s and 1830s reveal his precise rendering and superior draftsmanship.

In 1837 Durand accompanied his friend, the artist Thomas Cole, on a sketching trip in what would be Durand’s first visit to the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Durand was moved by the quietude and splendor of the American wilderness and felt an instant kinship with the land. This excursion, coupled with a financial panic that year that limited patronage for portraiture, prompted Durand to turn to landscapes for the duration of his career. Beginning in 1840, with money advanced by Jonathan Sturges, Durand toured Europe in a year-long sojourn visiting England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. While abroad Durand studied the works of the Old Masters and those of his contemporaries, especially the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. Surprisingly, Durand was dissatisfied with the European artists’ populated, civilized images of nature, writing: “The wide field of landscape painting has never yet been so successfully … cultivated … as have other departments of Art, relating to the action and passion of men.”4 Durand’s views corresponded with the sentiments of his countrymen, who favored a sense of nostalgia that yearned for the uncorrupted, undomesticated nature of the distant past, and a national effort to tie America’s cultural identity to the magnificence of its land. Durand returned to America with a renewed fervor, as he wrote to Cole, and a personal agenda to paint “the beauties of my own beloved country.”5

Durand painted in a realistic style that embodied the main tenets of the Hudson River school: a commitment to naturalism, a keen attention to detail, and above all, a deep love of nature—what Daniel Huntington later called a “passion, an enthusiasm always burning within him.”6 Within a prolific oeuvre spanning from the 1830s onward, Durand explored a variety of themes: marine, wilderness, forest, and pastoral landscapes formed his artistic repertoire. Durand was celebrated for the botanical precision of his foliage, the minute details that captured every mossy-covered rock, branch, and leaf with an arresting topographical accuracy.7 He also forged unique compositional elements: his panoramic, sweeping views and vertical formats are immediately recognizable, signature components of his works.8

Though Thomas Cole arguably had the greatest influence on Durand’s stylistic development, their art also revealed fundamental differences as reflected in the dual approach adopted by the next generation of Hudson River school artists. Like Cole, Durand depicted both the sublime grandeur of the American wilderness and evoked the pastoral relationship between man and nature. Yet his first landscapes, redolent of many of Claude Lorraine’s thematic and stylistic tendencies, were serene and bucolic in contrast to Cole’s often wild, romantic, and theatrical conceptualization of nature.9 As Durand developed his own mature style, he championed naturalism, placing greater emphasis on the real versus the ideal and capturing the specificity of nature in his works. Of all the Hudson River School painters, Durand was the most avid proponent of working en plein air, or directly from nature, a progressive departure for artists of the period, who traditionally created sketches outdoors and finished large-scale works in their studios.10

In addition to Durand and Thomas Cole, the first generation of Hudson River School painters included John W. Casilear, John F. Kensett, David Johnson, Jervis McEntee, George Inness, Jasper F. Cropsey, Homer Dodge Martin and Alexander Wyant.11 Following the death of Cole in 1848, Durand was considered the leader of the Hudson River School, which reached its peak by the 1850s. Durand’s art set an important precedent for the nation’s fledgling sense of self, painting landscapes as a direct expression of cultural nationalism.11 Durand was at the forefront of this crucial development. The venerable tradition of landscape painting, which has its roots in the Hudson River School, continues to inspire American artists today.

An active member of the art community, Durand formed friendships with some of the most influential figures of his time, including Samuel Morse, John Vanderlyn, and William Cullen Bryant.12 He also played an instrumental role in establishing some of America’s most well-known art institutions; he was a founder and member of the Century Association, the New York Drawing Association, the Sketch Club, and the National Academy of Design, serving as President from 1845 to 1861.13 In this capacity, Durand had a profound impact as a friend, mentor, and teacher to successive generations of American artists. He additionally contributed regularly to art historical literature, relating his theories on art and nature in Letters on Landscape Painting (1855) in the monthly periodical The Crayon.14

Durand retired from an illustrious career in 1869, spending the remainder of his years on his family farm in New Jersey, where he passed away in 1886. Durand was enormously successful throughout his career, though his fame soared to new heights recently when his painting, Kindred Spirits (1849), secured a record price at $35 million when it was purchased by Walmart heiress Alice Walton in 2005. In 2006 the Brooklyn Museum launched a major retrospective of his art, highlighting his critical role in the Hudson River school. Durand’s works may be viewed in such esteemed collections as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

II. Chronology

1796 Born August 21st in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood) in Springfield Township, Essex County, New Jersey; eighth child of John and Rachel Durand
1812 Began five-year apprenticeship under the engraver Peter Maverick in Newark, NJ
1817 Partnered with Peter Maverick and opened a branch of the business in New York City
1820 Commissioned by John Trumbull to engrave the Declaration of Independence for $3,000. Partnership with Maverick dissolved. Entered six portrait engravings at the American Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition
1821 Married Lucy Baldwin in Bloomfield, NJ on April 2nd
1822 Birth of son, John Durand, on May 6th
1823 Publication of Declaration of Independence; recognized nationally for his success as an engraver. Became associated with various engraving firms during the next eight years. Entered a portrait of his child in the American Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition
1824 Birth of daughter, Eliza B. Durand, on July 13th. Entered partnership with elder brother, Cyrus, and Charles C. Wright in a banknote, commercial engraving, and printing business entitled A.B. & C. Durand, Wright & Co
1825 Designed the invitation for New York City’s celebration to mark the completion of the Erie Canal. Chaired the November 8th meeting of artists to organize the New York Drawing Association. Elected member of James Fenimore Cooper’s Bread and Cheese Club (or the Lunch Club). December 13th, birth of second daughter, Caroline Durand
1826 Elected by members of the New York Drawing Association as one of the fifteen founders of the National Academy of Design on January 15th. Entered a religious painting, a portrait, and three engraved portraits in first exhibition of the National Academy
1827 Built home on Amity Street in New York. Became a founding member of the Sketch Club and one of the members of the Council of the National Academy of Design
1828 A.B. & C. Durand, Wright & Co renamed Durand, Perkins & Co. Wife Lucy became ill.
1829 Birth of third daughter, Lucy Maria Durand, on February 27th. Became a founding member of the Sketch Club. Began sketching in Hoboken, NJ at the Elysian Fields, a location he continued to visit through the early 1830s
1830 Briefly moved to St. Augustine, FL and Charleston, SC to restore his wife’s health. Lucy passed away on April 5th. Closed house on Amity Street. Provided six engravings and the cover image for William Cullen Bryant’s The American Landscape
1831 End of active participation in engraving firms; Durand, Perkins & Co dissolved
1833 Visited Virginia in September to paint ex-President James Madison, a portrait commissioned by George P. Morris, editor of the New York Mirror. Began work on a series of engravings for Herring and Longacre’s National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Elected Recording Secretary and Member of the Council of the National Academy of Design, a post he kept for the next five years. Began receiving many major commissions for portraits
1834 Married second wife, Mary Frank. Received first commission from Luman Reed, his future patron. William Dunlap’s History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States featured a chapter on Durand that referred to him as the country’s “first engraver”
1835 With Reed’s patronage, ended his career as an engraver. Traveled to Boston, Washington, and Brunswick to paint Presidential portraits for Luman Reed. Visited Washington Allston. Painted Senator Henry Clay for Charles Augustus Davis in Washington and President Andrew Jackson for Luman Reed. Visited Thomas Cole in the Catskills in the fall.
1836 Death of Luman Reed. Traveled to Hudson, Saugerties, Catskills, Albany, Utica, Boston, Trenton Falls, and Madison, in company with John W. Casilear part of the way.
1837 Mr. and Mrs. Durand accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Cole on a sketching trip to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks
1838 Contributed nine landscapes to N.A.D. annual exhibition. Reopened Amity Street home. Began sketching excursion in the Hudson River Valley in September with Casilear.
1839 Traveled with Cole to Boston, Salem, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, Lake Winnipesaukee, White Mountains, New Hampshire, Rutland, Green Mountains, Vermont. Birth of second son, Frederic F. Durand, on August 23rd
1840 Added studio to the house on Amity Street. Jonathan Sturges advanced money for European tour. Beginning June 1st, traveled with John W. Casilear, John F. Kensett, and Thomas P. Rossiter to England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.
1841 Returned to New York from his European tour in July
1842 Submitted ten works in the N.A.D. exhibition, all subjects concerned with his year’s study abroad. Began sketching in the Hudson River Valley around Newburgh at the end of the summer
1843 In Saugerties, NY in August
1844 August-September, with Casilear at Kingston, NY. Works first distributed by the American Art Union
1845 Followed Samuel F.B. Morse as President of N.A.D. and remained in office until resignation in 1861. Visited the Mohawk River Valley from July–August
1846 Spent summer from late June through mid-September in Cornwall, Marbletown, Pine Hill, and Kingston, NY
1847 Bought a summer house near Newburgh. Century Association was established at a meeting of the Sketch Club; Durand was a founding member
1848 Spends June–July in Adirondacks with Casilear and Kensett and September–October in the Catskills. Albany Gallery of Fine Arts acquires one of Durand’s works. Appointed to the committee establishing a New York Artists’ Fund Society
1849 September: travels to Tannersville in the Catskills with Casilear and Kensett
1850 Received a loan from Jonathan Sturges. Sold Newburgh property in July. September–October: with Christopher P. Cranch at Tannersville, NY
1851 Birth of third son, Eugene H. Durand, July 23rd. August–September: visits Manchester and Dorset, VT
1852 Pawlett, VT, with Elias W. Durand, his nephew
1853 June–August: Olive Township in the Catskills with E.W. Durand
1854 June–September: Olive Township
1855 January: The Crayon began publication and Durand’s influential “Letters on Landscape Painting” are published. June–October: Springfield and St. Johnsbury, VT, Littleton, Franconia, North Conway, Campton, and West Campton, NH. Benjamin Champney, Albert Hoit, Alvan Fisher, John F. Kensett, and Daniel Huntington also worked at North Conway during the summer of 1855
1856 July–September: West Campton, NH
1857 Death of Mary, Durand’s second wife. July–September: Catskills, NY, Woodstock, VT, and West Campton, NH
1858 August: Catskills
1859 June–July: Geneseo, NY
1860 July–September: Fishkill, NY
1861 June–October: Hillsdale, NY
1862 July–August: at Lake George at Hague, NY
1863 June–October: at Lake George at Bolton, NY
1864 July: Catskill Clove, NY
1865 June–August: in the vicinity of Barrytown and Livingston on the east side of the Hudson River
1866 July–August: near the vicinity of Tannersville in the Catskills
1867 December 5: public auction of Durand’s paintings by Henry H. Leeds & Miner
1868 July–September: Keene in the Adirondacks
1869 After fifty-two years in the city, retired in April to a newly built house and studio on family property at Maplewood, NJ. Visits Lake Placid in September
1870 August–September: Adirondacks
1871 September–October: Lake George
1872 Appointed to the Committee on Fine Arts of the New-York Historical Society, a post he would serve on until his death. A committee of five, including Jervis McEntee, Daniel Huntington, and J.F. Kensett, organized a “surprise party” in honor of Durand on June 8th. Twenty painters and long established friends, including William Cullen Bryant, came from New York. September: Lake George
1874 September: Lake George
1877 Final summer excursion to the Adirondacks. One of his works acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1878 Painted last work, Sunset-Souvenir of the Adirondacks (New-York Historical Society)_
1886 Died on September 17th in Maplewood, NJ. Buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY
1887 Executor’s sale on April 13th and 14th, auctioned from Ortgies’ Art Gallery, New York, NY

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Albany Institute of History & Art, NY
American Antiquarian Society, MA
Berkshire Museum, MA
Brandywine River Museum, PA
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Century Association, NY
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Fenimore Art Museum, NY
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Grolier Club, NY
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Hudson River Museum, NY
Huntington Library, CA
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA
Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Montclair Art Museum, NJ
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of the City of New York, NY
National Academy of Design, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
New Orleans Museum of Art, LA
New-York Historical Society, NY
New York Public Library, NY
Newark Museum, NJ
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Smith College Museum of Art, MA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Springfield Museum of Art, OH
Toledo Museum of Art, OH
University of Southern California, CA
Wadsworth Athenaeum, CT
Walters Art Museum, MD
White House, Washington, D.C.
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Worcester Art Museum, MA
Yale University Art Gallery, CT

IV. Exhibitions

1820–1833 American Academy of the Fine Arts
1826–1874 National Academy of Design
1835–1871 Boston Athenaeum
1843–1868 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1853 New York Gallery of Fine Arts
1859 Chicago Exposition
1864 Metropolitan Fair of the U.S. Sanitary Commission
1866 Paris Salon
1867 Exposition Universelle, Paris
1872 Brooklyn Art Association, “First Chronological Exhibition of American Art”
1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia
1878 Century Association

V. Memberships

Bread and Cheese Club (also known as the Lunch Club)
Century Association, founder and member
Committee on Fine Arts of the New York Historical Society
National Academy of Design, founder and member
New York Drawing Association, founder and member
The Sketch Club, founder and member

VI. Notes

1 David B. Lawall, A.B. Durand, 1796-1886 (Montclair, NJ: Montclair Art Museum, 1971), p. 13.
2 Barbara D. Gallati, “Asher B. Durand’s Early Career: A Portrait of the Artist as an Ambitious Man” in Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, ed. Linda S. Ferber (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2006), p. 51.
3 Lawall, p. 14.
4 Linda S. Ferber, “Asher B. Durand, American Landscape Painter” in Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2006), pp. 138-139.
5 Ibid., p. 140.
6 Lawall, p. 13.
7 Ferber, “Asher B. Durand, American Landscape Painter,” p. 181.
8 Ibid., p. 189.
9 Lawall, p. 15.
10 Ferber, “Asher B. Durand, American Landscape Painter,” p. 181.
11 Carter B. Horsley, “Intimate Friends: Asher B. Durand, & William Cullen Bryant.”
12 Ferber, “Asher B. Durand, American Landscape Painter,” p. 131.
13 Gallati, “Asher B. Durand’s Early Career: A Portrait of the Artist as an Ambitious Man,” p. 53.
14 Ferber, “Asher B. Durand, American Landscape Painter,” p. 171.
15 Please see Lawall A.B. Durand, pages 24–29 for this chronology.

VII. Suggested Resources

Durand, John. The Life and Times of A.B. Durand. New York: Kennedy Graphics, 1970.
Lawall, David B. Asher B. Durand: A Documentary Catalogue of the Narrative and Landscape Paintings.
New York: Garland Publications, 1978.
Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995.

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