Carter B. Horsley
New York Historical Society is notable for two great national
treasures, "The Course of Empire" series of oil paintings
by Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of Painting,
and Audubon’s original bird watercolors.
exhibition celebrates the art of Cole and his major disciple,
Asher B. Durand, and their "kindred" spirit, William
Cullen Bryant, the poet and editor.
society, which is located on Central Park West between 76th and
77th Street, has significant Cole and Durand holdings and this
exhibition also includes Durand's famous painting, "Kindred
Spirits," which is in the collection of the New York Public
Library and depicts Cole and Bryant conversing on a rock outcropping
in the Catskills with their names carved into one of the trees.
The exhibition is accompanied by a small catalogue by Ella M.
Foshay and Barbara Novak that is available from the society for
her preface to the catalogue, Betsy Gotbaum, the society's president,
notes that that the exhibition and small catalogue "offers
a preview of the fine scholarly work it will produce in coming
years under the auspices of the new Henry Luce III Center for
the Study of American Culture," which has just opened on
the museum's fourth floor. Several years ago, the Metropolitan
Museum opened a similar Henry Luce III center in its American
Wing and the one at the New York Historical Society is even more
impressive with more than 40,000 objects on view. She also
credits Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Altschul, major collectors of American
art, with proposing the exhibition.
Durand and Bryant, Ms. Foshay writes in her catalogue essay, "shared
the belief that nature, particularly nature in the New World,
resonated with overtones of meaning." "It was
a sacred place, where true communion could bring not only joy
in the beauty of the outdoors, but also enlightenment. With
ink and with paint, these artists explored the tangible appearances
of the natural world in search of its intangible truths.
They communicated their perceptions in landscape paintings and
nature poems that guided the direction of cultural ideas and aesthetic
expression in nineteenth-century America," she continued.
1825, the year that the Erie Canal opened promising increased
trade and economic prosperity to New York, Bryant and Cole arrived
in the city, where they met for the first time. Bryant,
a lawyer unhappy with his profession, came to pursue a career
in journalism, and Cole, an artist originally from England, came
via Ohio seeking patrons. They traveled in the same social
circles and became new members of the Bread and Cheese Club, also
known as the Lunch Club. This gathering of artists, writers
and New York professionals was founded by the novelist James Fennimore
Cooper (1789-1851) around 1820. It was probably at the Lunch
Club that Bryant and Cole met Asher B. Durand. Durand had
crossed the Hudson River from New Jersey, arriving in Manhattan
around 1817 to train in the engraving business. He learned
quickly and by 1824 had formed his own firm in partnership with
his older brother, Cyrus (1787-1868) called A. B. & C. Durand
& Co. The commission, in 1820, from the eminent Colonel
John Trumbull (1756-1843) to engrave the painter's Declaration
of Independence gave Durand the prominence to be invited to
become one of Cooper's early Lunch Club regulars," Foshay
took Durand with him in 1825 to visit Cole in his Greenwich Village
studio and they left, impressed and "each came away with
a painting under his arm," she continued, adding that the
next year Cole and Durand helped found the National Academy of
Design (see The City Review article, "Rave Reviews").
Bryant lectured at the Academy and in 1829 all three men helped
to found the Sketch Club, which would be attended by Luman Reed,
a early major art collector.
invited Cole and Durand to provide illustrations for The Talisman,
a literary annual he started in 1827 and in its third issue in
1829 he published the following sonnet, entitled "To Cole
the Painter on his Departure for Europe":
Thine eyes shall see the light of distant skies
Yet, Cole, thy heart shall bear to Europe's strand
A living image of thy native land,
Such as on thine own glorious canvass lies.
Lone lakes - savannahs where the bison roves -
Rocks rich with summer garlands - solemn streams -
Skies where the desert eagle wheels and screams -
Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves.
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest - fair,
But different - every where the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen
To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air.
Gaze on them, til the tears shall dim thy sight;
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.
Cole returned in 1832, he was welcomed by an editorial in The
New York Post by Bryant, then its editor, that boasted that the
United States had artists "equal to any in Europe" and
that its landscape rivaled that of the Old World for artistic
inspiration. Foshay observed that "Bryant participated
in the nationalistic spirit of the Jacksonian period" in
which "The desire to create a national culture commensurate
with American achievements in democratic governance and economic
prosperity found expression in editorials, aesthetic criticism
and even the popularity of American subjects in literature and
men," Foshay continued, "sought through their writing
and painting to embellish and dignify the New World with a culture
sown on native soil. The resource that they identified to
inspire this native art was the American landscape - unique in
its richness, variety and wildness. They emphasized scenery
that minimized such intrusions of civilizations as railroads,
buildings and farmlands. This land was God's creation, still
fresh from his hand. It offered spiritual and moral possibilities,
these men believed, for those trained to recognize them."
the purity of most Hudson River School paintings was bathed in
the light of "Manifest Destiny," a concept that would
actually evolve a bit later when a second generation of Hudson
River School artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran
would glorify the natural wonders of the American West while another,
Frederic Church, Cole's sole pupil, would carry his explorations
even further afield to Central and South America and to the Middle
addition to Durand, the first generation of Hudson River School
painters included John William Casilear, John F. Kensett, David
Johnson, Jervis McEntee, William Hart, James MacDougal Hart, George
Inness, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, Homer
Dodge Martin and Alexander Wyant, several of whom would later
adopt more Impressionistic or Tonalist styles.
importance of the Hudson River School paintings in helping to
forge a national image can not be underestimated especially in
the years before photography became popular. The artists
would travel regularly to the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the
White Mountains, the coast of Maine and Newport, R. I., and travel
in those days was neither easy nor quick and their prolific production
of paintings, sketches and engravings would provide many Americans
with awe for their country's remarkable, bucolic landscapes.
and Bryant would make several trips to Europe, especially Italy,
where they admired its scenery and art, but their enthusiasm for
American landscapes was unabated. Cole was particularly
enamoured of ruins that he encountered on his travels and in 1836
he began his "Course of Empire" series of paintings
that were commissioned by Luman Reed and illustrate the same place
in five different stages of history, from the savage to the barbaric
to the civilized to the destructive to the state of ruin and desolation.
series of paintings, all quite large, is remarkable and very impressive.
Cole would do another major series, entitled "The Voyage
of Life," as well as smaller series, all with strong moral
and religious overtones. "The Course of Empire"
and "The Voyage of Life" are the two most important
series of paintings by an American painter in the 19th Century.
notes that "because the vivid images haunted Cole with their
distinctness, he found he could not successfully paint a scene
immediately upon return from a walk." "He had
no interest in transcribing direct experience. The scenes
recorded by his mind's eye had to be digested and distilled into
ideal form after the passage of time," she wrote.
his mentor and friend, Cole, Durand was attracted to the 'common
details' of nature, spotted in situ. He sought to study
them with a clear eye and reproduce them faithfully. He
did not want to lose the keenness of his first impression….The
simple design of these studies is also different from the complex
compositions of Cole's allegorical landscapes. Durand uses
nature in the form of a dead tree or a bunch of rocks to compose
the picture. The artist sought to discover design in nature,
rather than to rearrange the elements of nature to create a pleasing
pictorial design….Wandering through the woods and selecting
scenes as he found them was, for Durand, a spiritual journey.
The works that he produced became acts of devotion….In Bryant's
poems, Durand found confirmation of his belief that the particulars
of nature were the embodiments of God's handiwork. To study
these particulars carefully was a process of enlightenment; to
recreate them in text and image was a religious endeavor.
Durand produced several pictures based on themes from Bryant's
verses, including Thanatopsis and Early Morning at Cold
Spring, both painted in 1850."
her catalogue essay, entitled "A Note on Durand's Studies
from Nature," Ms. Novak declares that "Asher B. Durand
(1796-1886) seems an unlikely candidate to represent a nineteenth-century
American avant-garde, yet that's what he was." "He
shared with Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and William Cullen Bryant
(1794-1878) a belief in nature as a Holy Book, each leaf and branch
a page written by Creation. But his pragmatic approach to
the natural world aligns him with such revolutionary European
painters as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), even as I will show,
with Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) - unexpected comparisons
for an American artist in a land where artistic traditions were
young, untried and sometimes borrowed," Novak maintained.
most of his life," Novak wrote, "Cole was torn between
nature and culture; like many Europeans he usually deferred to
the durable landscape tradition initiated by Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682).
Course of Empire, conceived in Italy, is a paen not only to
the cyclical nature of civilization but to the trinity of Claude,
J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) and John Martin (1789-1854).
Artistic precedents were interfused in Cole's mind with the nature
he passionately observed. Durand himself produced his share
of Hudson River School paintings in what I have called the 'Claudian
mode' - the framing trees, the central pond, the foreground coulisse,
the far distance, all manicured into a pastoral dream."
several of Durand's smaller studies from nature, mostly from the
1850s," Novak continued, "break with all previous conventions.
Empirical, immediate, alive with the joy of fresh perceptions,
they have a remarkably modern look. The sign of cultural
appropriation, the Claudian imprint, is gone….Trees and rocks
are not relocated and shifted to accommodate a pre-existing concept,
but seen close-up, directly transcribing the artist's pragmatic
experience in the American woods….his temperament was considerably
less literary and intellectual than Cole's. Durand's view
of nature was instructed by his sportsman's eye; he is on record
as surveying a potential site for its fishing as well as for its
painting possibilities. Words and ideas mattered to him
far less than they did to Cole."
Claude certainly predates Cole and Durand, his landscapes are
bucolic and often peopled, while those of Cole and Durand are
much more symphonic and beautiful. It is true that Durand
focused much more than Cole on the "particular" but
his finished landscapes, as opposed to his "studies,"
have much more serenity, in general, than Cole's, which tend to
suggest a wilder state of nature, with passing storm clouds, broken
tree limbs and stumps. Cole is by far the greater and more
ambitious and more consistent artist. He loved the drama
of nature, the changing force of nature, the sublime. Durand
loved the gestures of nature, the specificity of nature, the literal
wonder of it all.
a poet, Bryant conveyed his enthusiasm and love of the American
landscape and later in his career would produce the magnificent
two-volume set known as "Picturesque America" that employed
many famous artists to illustrate the country's varied and fabulous
exhibition is notable for the many fine studies by Durand and
for the important and impressive Coles.
pales besides Turner and Martin, but then so does every other
artist. The Hudson River School would be transformed over
the years by such artists as Sanford Robinson Gifford and John
F. Kensett and Fitz Hugh Lane and others into a more poetic, "Luminist"
style those clarity and brightness bordered on abstraction and
by such artists as George Inness into a very poetic Tonalism.
grandiloquence and romance remains astounding and endearing.
His Course of Empire series is immensely impressive and
his oeuvre includes many other fascinating compositions in both
large and small works. Durand's list of masterpieces is
much shorter, but at his best he was very good, although his quality
varies. Many of his "studies," such as those shown
in this exhibition, are marvelous and evocative and predate the
influence of Ruskin on nature studies.
can only look forward to bigger exhibitions and catalogues and
hopefully this exhibition will mark the end of the society's very
difficult financial crisis in recent years and help it gain the
stature that its great collections justify.
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