Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886)

Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886) Pastoral Scene, not dated oil on canvas Museum purchase, 1954.3.

Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886)
Pastoral Scene, not dated
oil on canvas
Museum purchase, 1954.3.

New-Jersey-born Asher Brown Durand is known as a prolific American painter of the Hudson River School; and before that he was a prolific engraver. He turned to painting in his mid-30’s, first doing portraits (such as in 1835 of Andrew Jackson who was then President) before moving on to landscapes. 

Durand (pictured below in 1844 and around 1869) first learned engraving by helping his Dutch silversmith father engrave initials on watches.  As an adult, he was considered the best engraver in the United States, being entrusted with engraving official bank notes along with completing a commission from the National Portrait Gallery for a series of portraits engraved from paintings done by others.

In 1850 Durand started exhibiting landscape studies made from nature, not the prevailing way for artists to work at the time. His landscapes show the engraver’s close attention to detail: as an example, in his Pastoral Scene, every bit of foliage can be individually distinguished. He was passionate about nature, it made him fundamentally happy to be in it, of it, to look at it, absorb it, paint it. For Durand, painting nature was a form of self-expression, communicating personal feeling and experience.

In 1825, Durand helped found the National Academy of Design (later the National Academy Museum and School) where he was then an instructor for many years. This was and is an honorary professional organization, school and museum "to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition", and a member is a National Academician (or NA).

William Dunlap’s 1834 History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States says of Durand, “This gentleman, although our first engraver, by universal acclamation, … I have little more to say of him, than that he is one of the most amiable men I have known as well as one of the best artists.” In a memorial address about his recently deceased friend fifty-two years later, Daniel Huntington had a somewhat more complex view, “Though full of nervous energy, alive to every beauty, keenly sensitive to criticism, and a severe critic on his own work, he was yet blessed with a certain serenity of spirit which checked and soothed the restless fever of the creative brain.” Two men who knew Durand well, describing the man behind the artist.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.