Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Part 6. Durand’s Legacy

(Last in the series on American landscape painter Asher B. Durand)

By the time Durand died in 1886, the taste for landscape painting in America had moved away from the carefully rendered epic visions of nature that were dominant before the Civil War.

The vogue for Impressionism brought a new interest in painterliness and design as subjects in themselves. Plein-air work, once regarded as a means for gathering raw material, was now accepted as a finished mode of art, replacing the imaginative creations of the studio.

Through it all, Durand’s work never fell from favor. His fundamental belief that truth to nature was the foundation of all beauty echoed down through generations of the artists he influenced, and it serves as a standard for the revival of realism in our own times.
Part 5: Durand's Color

The American Landscapes of Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) 
The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature 1830-1880

10 comments:

Tom Hart said...

Thanks for this series Jim. In addition to giving me a new appreciation for Durand's work, it's also been thought-provoking.

It's interesting to ponder what "truth" is. One of the many things I love about art is how it reminds us that the "right answer" depends on context (in every sense of the word) as well the goal desired.

The series also reminded me that I have a copy of The Painted Sketch, which I pulled out and have been enjoying.

phiq said...

Thank you for posting this series. It has been enlightening! A not-so-typical take on things from a master realist.

Anonymous said...

I am curious as to what Durand's religious background was. I was thinking about what he said about being true to nature without parading pigment and technique. That sounds influenced by the Quakers or similar religious belief. I am finding nothing on it, so far. - mp

Anonymous said...

Love the series on Durand. Your blog is a treasure trove. - mp

James Gurney said...

Tom, that's a profound question. Durand's notion of truth to nature is subtle and sophisticated, and he explains quite eloquently it in "Letters on Landscape Painting." For the student, it means doing studies of foreground objects as accurately as possible, not exactly copying leaf for leaf, but suggesting or "representing" complex detail. But he definitely doesn't believe the artist should be a "paint camera." On a higher level, he advocates the rather of Platonic ideal of arranging the elements of the scene into a vision of a greater reality that lies beyond appearances.

AnonMP, and that ties into your question, which is also vital. He talks about the Divine a lot, and speaks of his work in spiritual terms. A sketch isn't a sketch; a study isn't a study. It's a Transcript from Nature, a page taken from the holy book of the wilderness Eden. He wasn't a churchgoer or a man of scriptural liturgy, though. If you were to put a label on him, I suppose you could call him a Transcendentalist, and those ideas were current in his time.

I often wonder to what extent we modern painters, admiring as we do the work of our forerunners, can adopt or even understand the mindset that lies behind the surface of their technique.

etc, etc said...

His fundamental belief that truth to nature was the foundation of all beauty echoed down through generations of the artists he influenced, and it serves as a standard for the revival of realism in our own times.

James,
Thanks, and this has been, as Tom said, thought-provoking. Personally it has led me to ponder if modern realism, even that which calls itself "classical", actually might more appropriately be labelled "romanticist" realism.

Benjamin. said...

I've been looking up different Hudson River Painters recently. I think Church is my favorite. Just something about his stuff. I like Durand too though.

Beth said...

Adding my thanks for the Durand series.

phiq said...

This discussion about beliefs is interesting. The ideological bent of very nearly all of these 19th Century artists is indicative of the Enlightenment era, which sounds obvious, but it's one of the main differences for those of us involved in Realism now, compared to back then. I haven't seen many people make this observation. Some Realists today speak (preach?) with what appears to be the same zeal as their 19 Century forebears, yet come off sounding a little strange, probably due to our contemporary attitudes, ie (post-) postmodernism.

Reading this Durand series, I found that his particular "spiritual" slant on things nicely supports his mostly typical Realist "mantras". I think it gives him a stronger reason for painting like he did than many of his contemporaries; there were extra-artistic motivations. A lot of academics, for example, would tout a superior sounding "this is what art should be" kind of thing, and while that's not to say that their reasons were baseless, I find the attitude more of a product of the times rather than the result of some kind of enduring, robust argument.

I'm not sure what many of us now can take away from Durand's particular perspective. Clearly there were some untypical ideas supporting his painting. I love the Platonic take on things though; I had never thought of applying that in that way. Whatever people choose to take away, they should swallow it with a decent understanding of that time in history, especially in relation to art, because there are reasons as to why the Realists don't rule the waves anymore. Personally, as much as I love what I love about Realism, I cannot bring myself to conceptualise it all in the same "cosmology" that they did. It's not the same for this Realist.

etc, etc said...

Alexandre Calame (1810-1864) presents an interesting contrast to Durand.