Asher Brown Durand was an American printmaker and landscape painter associated with the first generation of the Hudson River School and eventually became the movement's leading figure, marking its second generation. Durand's artworks are especially known and acclaimed for his magnificent forest portrayals and landscape panoramas.
Asher Brown Durand was born in 1786 in Jefferson Village, now Maplewood, New Jersey. Young Durand was first apprenticed by his father, who was a silversmith and watchmaker.
During his mid-twenties, Durand began an apprenticeship under the engraver Peter Maverick, between 1812 and 1817. They became associates in the latter year, and Durand would establish a firm branch in New York.
In the following year, Durand began to study drawing from sculpture plaster casts at the American Academy of Fine Arts, although informally. There, Durand's work came under the attention of the distinguished American artist, John Trumbull.
In 1820, Trumbull commissioned Durand to execute an engraved copy of his famous painting The Declaration of Independence, which Durand promptly accepted. Completed three years later, this commission was vital to ascend Durand's name to recognition, rendering him a prominent engraver and ingressing him in New York's art circles.
During this period, Durand enjoyed significant success engraving copies after other artists, portraits, book illustrations, and banknotes. Asher, alongside his brother Cyrus, founded a banknote engraving company. Cyrus invented machines for mechanical, revolutionizing the art of currency engraving.
Asher's production for the Federal Bureau of Printing and Engraving influenced aesthetic, pictorial, and ornamental elements that became recurrent on the United States' paper currency.
By 1825, Durand, William Sidney Mount, Samuel F.B. Morse, Thomas Cole, among others, founded the New York Drawing Association, which would later be known as the National Academy of Design. During the early 1830s, influenced by his fellow artists, Durand, artist output was increasingly shifting towards painting, producing mainly genre scenes and portraits.
He soon received a commission to paint a series of portraits of American presidents. The project was ordered by Luman Reed, who was an affluent merchant and an important art patron. By 1835, Reed would persuade Durand to abandon engraving altogether.
The production of the distinguished American landscape artist Thomas Cole became an increasing artistic influence for Durand. They soon became friends and, by 1837, took a sketching trip in the Adirondacks. According to scholars, this trip was a crucial moment, shifting Durand's production towards landscape painting.
Between April 1840 and June 1841, Durand took his only trip to Europe, visiting France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Holland, Britain, and Switzerland. He was accompanied by John William Casilear and John Frederick Kensett, whose careers also began with engraving. Durand spent his time getting acquainted and copying artworks by the old masters, whereas regularly sketching outdoors.
According to scholars, the most pivotal moment of this trip was in London. He met The American genre painter Charles Robert Leslie, who showed Durand plein air oils and sketches by the distinguished British Romantic painter John Constable.
Upon returning to the United States, Constable's influence found its way into Durand's artistic production. He took frequent trips to New England, the Adirondacks, and the Hudson River, where he sketched directly from nature. The artist created increasingly vivid compositions, especially of woodland scenes, such as the magnificent In the Woods and A Creek in the Woods. They are excellent examples of Durand's compositional elements that became recurrent in the second generation of the Hudson River School; the vertical forest interior.
Following Thomas Cole's death in 1848, Durand took the mantle as Hudson River School's second generation leading figure and philosopher. According to Durand, rather than learning from other artists, one should go outdoors and paint directly from nature to learn to refine their artistic vision. Nonetheless, Durand's production served as an example for several young artists who often accompanied him to a sketch colony in the White Mountains.
In the following year, Durand was commissioned to execute a composition depicting his late friend and mentor Thomas Cole and the American Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant in the Catskills. Apart from being a homage to both artists, the painting is often considered the most famous images of the Hudson River School and the embodiment of its concepts.
The composition is also considered a representation of how visual arts and literature were closely related. Durand was also praised for his landscapes panoramas, such as his Landscape - Scene from "Thanatopsis", based on Bryant's most famous poem.
The artist became the president of the National Academy of Design in 1855, a position he held until the American Civil War's eclosion ten years later. As the discovery of the American West grew, the artistic production and general interest of the public shifted towards these newly discovered lands. And so, As the new generation of artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church pushed the boundaries of the Hudson River School, Durand's relevance began to decline.
During his later career, Durand's production shifted away from the Hudson River School's style in favor of an approach closely similar to 17th and 18th-century European landscape painting. He also recreated previous compositions, albeit with a more atmospheric rendering of tonal values. The artist completed his last picture in 1878, seven years before his passing.
However, the artist was not forgotten, even after his retirement in 1879. His artworks continued to be exhibited in distinguished exhibitions, and his name was revered by generations of artists that followed.
Asher Brown Durand died in his native Maplewood on September 17, 1886.
The artist consolidated his name as one of the most prominent and quintessential of his generation, and arguably of American art altogether. He became the leading figure of the Hudson River School and a pivotal influence on its second generation. Durand's magnificent landscapes, especially his woodland interiors, are still praised to this very day.
"The external appearance of this our dwelling place, apart from its wondrous structure and functions that minister to our well-being, is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation."
"[T]he true province of Landscape Art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation..."
- Asher Brown Durand