Sunday, November 4, 2012

Part 3: Durand’s Letters

(Part 3 of a series)
Durand articulated the principles of his art in a series of influential articles called “Letters on Landscape Painting,” published in The Crayon magazine in 1855.

Taken together, these writings are the most complete expression of the philosophies of the Hudson River School, and provide valuable insights for today’s painter or collector. Art historian James Flexner describes “Letters” as “one of those rare documents that summarizes the spirit of a group and a generation.”

Durand wrote that direct study from nature was the ideal way for the artist to transcend the limitations of tired compositional formulas, providing “the only safeguard against the inroads of heretical conventionalism.”

He defined conventionalism as “the substitution of an easily expressed falsehood for a difficult truth.” He advised students to begin with a thorough familiarity with the pencil before graduating to paint, and even then, to develop a mastery of foreground objects in strong light and shade before attempting atmospheric distances.

The goal in plein-air work, according to Durand, was to render nature as faithfully as possible, and to “scrupulously accept whatever she presents him, until he shall, in a degree, have become intimate with her infinity, and then he may approach her on more familiar terms, even venturing to choose and reject some portions of her unbounded wealth.”

He addressed the limits of artistic license by saying that the artist “may displace a tree, or render it a more perfect one of its kind if retained,” but the placement of elements in the middle ground and the “characteristic outline, undulating or angular, of all the great divisions, may not be changed in the least perceptible degree, most especially the mountain and hill forms. On these God has set his signet.”

Tomorrow: Part 4--Durand's Subjects 
The book The American Landscapes of Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) is one of the few places where you can get the full text of Durand's Letters on Landscape Painting.

6 comments:

Tom Hart said...

While looking at Durand's work, keeping in mind the stress he puts on direct observation from nature, I'm struck by how stylized his foliage looks. Clearly he considers that within the bounds of artistic license, or, to quote the article, in the service of "render[ing] it a more perfect one of its kind". It seems to me, though, to represent a foot in the past, stylistically.

etc, etc said...

Regardless of what Durand preached plein air, in studio practice he employed a great degree of stylization and "conventional compositional models based on European prototypes". One should use extreme caution in taking the words of artists literally. Read Bellori and Malvasia; Italian Baroque artists were ever boasting of their fidelity to nature.

James Gurney said...

Tom and Etc, It's true that many of Durand's studio paintings owe a lot to Claude and other models, and his truth to nature doctrine itself borrowed a good deal from Ruskin's previously published writings, which he doesn't acknowledge.

But seen in the context of their time, Durand's works were a revelation, and his ideas were very influential. I've added to the post one of his observational studies to give a better idea of what he was producing in the field. To my eye, that study does a better job of overcoming conventionalism in tree painting that you're likely to see in 99.9 percent of modern plein air painting.

etc, etc said...

James,
Maybe the direct from nature studies were where Durand's heart truly was, but the studio paintings were a professional concession to public taste. If that's what Ferber meant in her statement, then I can understand; but she phrased the statement in such a broad and sweeping way which I thought was semantically careless.

अर्जुन said...

Did I hear someone say, "Kindred Spirits."

Anonymous said...

The two paintings are absolutely breathtaking.

I am going to read his complete "Letters.." though possibly with the tiniest grain of salt, now. - mp