Asher Durand

By Mary Lyn Sullivan

Asher Durand

Engraver, portrait painter, landscape artist, and President of the National Academy of Design.


Asher Durand was born on August 21, 1796 in Jefferson Village, New Jersey (now known as Maplewood, New Jersey). He was the eighth of eleven children, and his father was a watchmaker and silversmith. As a young adult, Durand attended the American Academy of Fine Arts and served an engraving apprenticeship under Peter Maverick in Newark, New Jersey. This apprenticeship led to a brief partnership that ended after Durand became known as a renowned engraver with the success of his engraving of John Trumbull's painting "The Declaration of Independence" in 1823. Durand went on to found the New York Drawing Association in 1825 which became the National Academy of Design a year later. Asher Durand also worked with his brother Cyrus Durand and Charles C. Wright in the production of bank notes during this time.

In 1832, Durand ended his engraving business to work for a short time as a portrait painter of presidents and other political leaders. However, in 1837, a sketching expedition to the Adirondacks with friend, mentor, and fellow artist Thomas Cole led Durand to change his focus to landscape painting. Thomas Cole and the economic Panic of 1837 highly influenced Durand to concentrate on landscape painting. From there, Durand started taking more and more trips to the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains to make drawings and oil sketches that he later turned into finished paintings. He also made frequent trips to Europe to study the old masters and to sketch more landscapes.

In 1845, Durand was chosen as the second President of the National Academy of Design; a position that he held until 1861. During his time as President, he founded the Century Association and published his influential "Letters on Landscape Painting" in the Crayon, a well-known art periodical. Durand retired from the Hudson River School art movement in 1869 and stopped painting in 1878. He died in his hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey on September 17, 1886.

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Kindred Spirits (1849)

Asher Durand's famous painting "Kindred Spirts" was painted to honor the life of Durand's mentor and friend Thomas Cole (who is seen as the man holding the portfolio in this painting). Cole inspired Durand as he founded the Hudson River School, which Durand followed. Also pictured is William Cullen Bryant, a well-known nature poet and editor. This painting was given to Bryant after the heartfelt eulogy that he gave at Cole's memorial service. The two men in the painting are standing on a gorge in the Catskill Mountains, a place that Thomas Cole made famous in his lifetime through his paintings. The painting reflects the detail towards nature that the Hudson River School conveyed and expresses the ideal of man coexisting with nature peacefully. In the painting, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant represent the ideal of man and nature being able to coexist, thus reaffirming their positions as leaders in the Hudson River School Movement.
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The Beeches (1845)

This painting was originally made for Abraham M. Cozzens, a New York art collector and member of the American Art-Union. Asher Durand painted this painting after the death of Thomas Cole, so it was made when Durand led the Hudson River School movement. In this painting, Durand introduced new techniques to the movement;some of which he had learned from while studying in Europe. The painting focuses on light and atmosphere in creating a tranquil mood as the eye focuses in on the lake, shepherd, and sheep in the center of the photo. The increase in light and color towards the center of the photo further romanticizes the ideal of sublimity in nature that Durand was trying to convey. The painting also conveys the revelation that natures is a reflection of God's work, thus strengthening the manifestation that God conveys in nature. This belief also strengthened American nationalism as it strengthened the ideal of Manifest Destiny where Americans were encouraged to expand the Western landscape of their country.
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Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853)

This painting was made in 1853, right in the midst of Durand's term as president of the National Academy of Design. Similar to his painting "The Beeches", the painting has a juxtaposition of lightness and darkness, reflecting the Hudson River School's ideal of nature being a direct manifestation of God. There is also a juxtaposition between the peaceful agriculture on the right side of the painting and the remaining wilderness that's present on the left side. This shows the movement's desire to be realistic in portraying that the nation's remaining wilderness was disappearing, right as it was finally becoming appreciated for its ruggedness and sublimity. This also conveys the idea that the unsoiled American landscape should be the nation's pride. Durand expresses this ideal by showing the positive and negative aspects of progress: on one hand, the remaining wilderness is being destroyed, but on another, there is a whole frontier waiting to be discovered out west. This supports the ideal of Manifest Destiny, or American expansionism.

Contributions to the Art World

As the second president of the National Academy of Design, Asher Durand led and helped to advance the art world from 1845-1861. During this time, he also helped lead the Hudson River School during the height of it's popularity. Durand helped to make new techniques that he learned in Europe such as having the eye focus on lighter objects toward the center of the painting, which suggests sublimity and tranquility more popular in the United States by introducing them to the Hudson River School. Also throughout his lifetime, Durand founded a Sketch Club in 1827, and the Century Association in 1847, both of which helped to increase the popularity of art within the nation. Also, Durand helped to increase the nation's interest in landscape painting with his influential "Letters on Landscape Painting" that was published in 1855, while he was president of the National Academy of Design.

Asher Durand and American Nationalism

Asher Durand's artwork helped to illustrate the growing feeling of nationalism that was emerging during the early nineteenth century. Asher Durand's most well-known artwork during the early nineteenth century was his beautiful landscape paintings. These landscapes were mainly of land in the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains. His pieces the displayed these landscapes made Americans feel proud of the land that they already had, thus improving their pride for their nation and fueling nationalism. By also displaying the negative effects that had become of some of this land, it helped to motivate Americans to better appreciate their remaining wilderness. Also, by using precise examples of light in his paintings, Asher Durand was able to convey the idea that God was manifested in nature. This helped fuel the idea of Manifest Destiny, where it was believed that God was calling Americans to expand their borders. Manifest Destiny, most definitely improved American Nationalism as the country grew in size.