Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) would often select a small group of forms from within a complex scene and study it to the exclusion of its background detail. His son recalls that “finding trees in groups, he selected one that seemed to him, in age, color, or form, to be the most characteristic of its species, or in other words, the most beautiful."
"In painting its surroundings, he eliminated all shrubs and other trees which interfered with the impression made by this one. Every outdoor study...was regarded as a sort of dramatic scene in which a particular tree or aspect of nature may be called the principal figure.”
Durand’s form of realism was not a slavish or “servile imitation,” but rather a refined sensibility, guided by feeling, that sought to identify the characteristic form of specific varieties of trees, rocks and clouds while still attending to the minutiae of the individual subject.
He drew a distinction between imitation, which satisfies only the eye, and representation, which satisfies the mind’s conception of ideal form. He conceded that a perfect copy of natural forms like flowing water or intricate foliage was impossible, but that the attempt to achieve it helped the artist develop methods that could be brought into service in recreating those forms back in the studio.
Close examination of Durand’s original studies reveals that he did not necessary follow the practice of completing an entire scene la prima in one sitting. He typically painted foliage passages over a dry sky background that had been previously applied, and often worked for at least two consecutive sittings to accomplish his more detailed studies, probably executing the tree and the landscape at two different locations.
Tomorrow: Part 5: Durand's Color