Written by Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, Curator of Drawings, New-York Historical Society
The leader of the second-generation Hudson River School painters, Asher B. Durand (1796–1886), believed in the therapeutic power of Nature. Durand’s empiricism and dedication to Nature are evident in the Historical Society’s ten sketchbooks (two of which are fragments of disassembled sketchbooks), 310 drawings, and 79 paintings. These works are joined by an extensive trove of objects, documents, and prints that together make up the largest holding of Durand material in the world. Durand’s sketchbooks are featured in the just-published issue of Master Drawings in my article, “Asher B. Durand’s Sketchbooks in the New-York Historical Society.”
N-YHS’s rich repository is largely due to the generosity of his descendants: the artist’s son John (1822–1928); his daughter Lucy Maria Durand Woodman (1829–1910), an artist in her own right; and his granddaughter Nora Durand Woodman (1864–1935).
The lion’s share of the hundreds of drawings focus on Durand’s two favorite subjects that run like leitmotifs through his oeuvre and are meditations on mortality: trees and rocks. Moreover, Durand—seen as a 20-something in his idealistic self-portrait—was a fascinating person.
While Durand used graphite for most of his tree studies, he occasionally sketched them in oil, as in the example above. Durand, like other Hudson River School painters, found in the American landscape a source of spiritual renewal and expression of national identity. Like his colleagues, he created scenes celebrating a majestic wilderness devoid of human modifications or modernization. By the mid-19th century, the increasing settlement of the Northeast raised the specter of the destruction of the natural environment.
Take a video tour of the N-YHS exhibition at the Fundacîon Juan March in Spain to see more works by Durand. (English and Spanish with subtitles)
Durand’s friend Sylvester Graham (1794–1851) was an early advocate for dietary reform. Although the two men were acquainted as early as 1812, their connection strengthened in the 1830s, when Graham was lecturing after the cholera epidemic that decimated New York City and when Durand painted his now-lost portrait of his friend, probably preserved in an unfinished print that was replicated above. Graham’s reforms included fresh-air exercise that coincided with Durand’s insistence on the “natural,” his pioneering practice of painting outdoors, his belief in moderation instead of extremes, and his search for self-improvement.
A Presbyterian minister and the namesake for Graham flour, Graham was best known for his emphasis on vegetarianism and on whole grains. Graham despised the discarding of nutrients and bleaching with alum and chlorine involved in making white flour. He believed that using all of the grain (without adding chemicals) in the milling of flour and baking of bread was a remedy for the poor health of his fellow Americans in the wake of changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution—as explained in his Treatise on bread, and bread-making and the Graham Journal of Health.
Durand was a “Grahamite,” as Graham’s followers were known, claiming that Graham’s regimen cured his “dyspepsia.” Grahamites also practiced frequent bathing, daily brushing of teeth, and abstinence from alcohol to ensure longevity. Graham himself was an advocate of sexual abstinence. (No wonder some Grahamites lost faith when their mentor died at the age of 57!) Graham’s major contributions were the popularizing of frequent bathing and Graham crackers—although his doctrines found later echoes in the Kellogg brothers and their invention of cornflakes.
Moreover, Grahamism prefigured the vegan movement because Graham also abstained from meat and dairy, which he believed to be the cause of sexual urges and lust. He aimed to eliminate both along with alcohol in order to develop a purer body and mind.
Durand was modern in that he had two careers and re-invented himself. He spent nearly the first 24 years of his career as a successful commercial engraver of banknotes and fine art, giving up the burin for the brush in 1836. Having honed his draftsmanship as an engraver, he may have sensed that drawing was his forte, a conclusion supported by his daughter Caroline Durand’s (1826–1902) casual comment in a circa 1857 letter to her brother John: “Pa can’t make his color work well at all, and consequently has gone to making sketches instead of studies, much to his disappointment.” (Asher B. Durand Papers, MssCol 865, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library).
When he was traveling in England and Italy in 1840 and 1841, however, Durand was exposed to Italian and English artists painting out-of-doors, and he admired English artists’ use of watercolors. He experimented with them, claiming “Made some unprofitable attempts at the use of the moist watercolours preparatory to their application in sketching from nature & from pictures, am a little doubtful of my success in this business.”
No doubt he was also influenced by the fact that Winsor & Newton had developed the first glycerine-based, moist watercolors in 1835, changing forever the history of painting outdoors in watercolor. Several of Durand’s attempts with the medium are reproduced in the recently published issue of Master Drawings, including on the magazine’s cover, reproduced above.
When he returned from his year-long European Grand Tour, Durand practiced what he preached, spending much time in country sketching. He also recommended to harried urban professionals what was then a common remedy for mental and physical ills: a trip to the country. For all those who could not indulge in such a visit, including his patrons, he wrote, “To the rich merchant and capitalist,” landscape art could be “as an oasis in the desert.” He thought that paintings were an antidote to the corrupting and debilitating effects of city life and that contemplation of a sylvan landscape was a healing experience. Nineteenth-century viewers responded in a like manner.
For example, in 1844, a critic for the New Mirror dropped by the artist’s studio and found on his easel a large landscape. “I sat down before it,” he wrote “[and] it absorbed me. My soul went into it . . . it seemed to me as if that landscape alone would be a retreat . . . a world by itself to retreat into from care or sad thoughts.”
Images from Asher Durand’s sketchbook were recently digitized and are now available to view online through the New-York Historical Society’s digital collections database. See them here.