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Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand & William Cullen Bryant

New York Historical Society

Oct. 24, 2000 to Feb. 4, 2001

"The Course of Empire: The Savage State," by Thomas Cole, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 by 63 1/4 inches, The New York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts, 1858

By Carter B. Horsley

The 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.

This exhibition celebrates the art of Cole and his major disciple, Asher B. Durand, and their "kindred" spirit, William Cullen Bryant, the poet and editor.

The 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 $12.95.

In 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.

Cole, 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.

"In 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 wrote.

Trumbull 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.

Bryant 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.

When 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 painting."

"These 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."

Indeed, 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 East.

In 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.

The 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.

Course of Empire, Destruction by Thomas Cole

"The Course of Empire: Destruction," by Thomas Cole, 1836, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 by 63 1/2 inches, The New York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts, 1858

Cole 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.

"Course of Empire, Desolation" by Thomas Cole

"The Course of Empire, Desolation," by Thomas Cole, 1836, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 by 63 1/4 inches, The New York Historical Society, Gift of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts, 1858

The 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.

Foshay 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.

"Franconia Notch, New Hampshire" by Asher B. Durand

"White Mountain Scenery, Franconia Notch, New Hampshire," by Asher B. Durand, oil on canvas, 48 1/4 by 72 1/2 inches, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, on permanent loan from the New York Public Library, Stuart 105

"Unlike 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."

In 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.

"For 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."

"Study from Nature, Stratton Notch, Vermont," by Asher B. Durand

"Study from Nature, Stratton Notch, Vermont," by Asher B. Durand, oil on canvas, 18 by 23 3/4 inches, New York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, daughter of the artist, 1907

"But 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."

While 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.

Black Mountain, Lake George, NY" by Asher B. Durand

"Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George, N.Y.," by Asher B. Durand, 1875, oil on canvas, 32 1/2 by 60 inches, The New York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Lucy Maria Durand Woodman, 1907

As 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 landscapes.

This exhibition is notable for the many fine studies by Durand and for the important and impressive Coles.

Cole 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.

Cole's 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.

One 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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