Friday, November 2, 2012

Part 1: Durand on Location

(This is part one of a series on the American landscape pioneer Asher B. Durand (1796-1886)   based on an article I wrote for Plein Air magazine in April, 2005.) 

In June of 1837, Asher B. Durand and his friend Thomas Cole departed on a sketching trip to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks of New York State. They had carefully planned for the excursion, packing camp stools, umbrellas, and easels, and assembling a list of oil colors that included Antwerp Blue, Mummy Brown, and Asphaltum.

Collapsible tin paint tubes had not yet been invented, so they had to decide whether to grind pigments on location or to transport prepared paint in small pigskin bladders, which were prone to breaking open or drying out.1 They brought along provisions of sour bread, salt pork, and ham, supplemented with fresh trout caught along the way.

The Schroon Lake expedition was a turning point for Durand, for it shaped his resolution to leave successful careers in engraving and portrait painting and to concentrate exclusively on landscape painting. Cole was already established as America’s premier landscape artist and had made some early experiments with plein-air work. But it was Durand who became the most enthusiastic early champion of painting from nature in oil.

According to fellow artist Daniel Huntington, Durand “was a pioneer in painting carefully finished studies directly from nature out-of-doors.”2 Other early landscape artists of his day—including Cole— “made only pencil drawings, or, at most, slight watercolor memoranda of the scenes they intended to paint, aiding the memory by writing on the drawing hints of color and effect.” Cole believed that “time [should] draw a veil of memory” over the common details of a scene in order to achieve a poetic sensibility in a painting.

Durand, following the earlier example of Constable and Corot, became deeply engaged by the challenge of working in oil outdoors in what he called “The School of Nature.” He went “directly to the fountain-head, and began the practice of faithful transcripts of ‘bits’ for use in his studio.” His custom was to spend two or three months each summer traveling with artist friends in the Catskills, Adirondacks, or White Mountains, gathering studies in both oil and pencil that would be used as aids to the memory when developing finished compositions during the winters in his New Jersey studio.
1. Eleanor Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880, (New York: Harry N. Abrades, 1998), 33.
2. Daniel Huntington, Asher B. Durand, a Memorial Address by Daniel Huntington. New York: The Century Association, 1887.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Durand's America


Tom Hart said...

Very interesting. I'm really curious to know whether they decided to grind pigments in the field, or to use the breakable bladders. How did that turn out?

smileyginger said...

sigh... no one painted trees like Durand.

Anonymous said...

There is such a majestic and imaginative quality to the better HRS paintings that directly links them to the grand traditions of the past, unlike the modern plein air impressionistic painter who stupidly thinks that the art of painting is solely about light effects and gooping paint on a rough weave canvas.

Kessie said...

Talk about the ultimate camping trip! Hiking, fishing and painting sounds like the ideal vacation to me.

James Gurney said...

Wikipedia about mummy brown: "Mummy brown was originally made in the 16th and 17th centuries from white pitch, myrrh, and the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies, both human and feline,[2] one London colourman claiming that he could satisfy the demands of his customers for twenty years from one Egyptian mummy."

Janet Oliver said...

How big were Durand's studies, do you know?

James Gurney said...

Janet, a lot of them were about 18x22 or so. Bierstadt's were on paper, about 13 x 19 if memory serves, because that fit into his paint box. Church typically worked smaller, more like 9x12.

James Gurney said...

Tom and Janet, I've added a link to the two best books on this topic. The one by Eleanor Harvey explains exactly how these artists worked on the spot, and the book on Durand has his "Letters on Landscape Painting," which I'll be talking about later.

Etc: The Hudson River Fellowship is a group that is exploring a painting approach more in tune with the pre-impressionist H.R. painters.

Smiley. Yes, except Shishkin and Trost Richards.

Janet Oliver said...

Thank you, James! I'll follow the links.