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
Part 1: Durand on Location
Part 2: Durand's AmericaThe 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.