Kindred Spirits by Asher Brown Durand

A lot has been written on Crystal Bridges, from its stunning architecture to the wonderful news that admission will be free for all. But little has been written about the artwork inside of the museum (partly due to the fact that most of the collection has been kept a secret). This is the first in a series of articles that will introduce significant paintings in the Crystal Bridges collection.

Asher B. Durand finished Kindred Spirits in March 1849.  It was a memorial to his friend and mentor Thomas Cole, who stands in the landscape with writer and poet William Cullen Bryant.  The painting was commissioned following the death of Cole (aged 47) by dry-goods merchant and longtime art patron Jonathan Sturges.  Sturges gave the painting to Bryant, a close friend of Cole (his “kindred spirit”) and Durand.  Durand’s work remained in the Bryant family until 1904 when it was donated to the New York Public Library.

Kindred Spirits was sold by the NYPL to Alice Walton at private auction for a purported $35 million dollars in 2005 (156 years after its completion), the highest price ever paid for a piece by an American artist.  Over the past 50 years, the painting has gained distinction (that it did not have in the 19th century) as emblematic of the Hudson River School movement (A 1961 article in LIFE and a 1962 piece in Art Journal on Durand may have contributed to its rise in distinction). Kindred Spirits “hung in obscurity” for years in the hallways of the New York Public Library (where I am writing this) before it was moved into the Edna Barnes Salomon Room in 1986 with dozens of other paintings.[1]

After Walton bought the painting to be the centerpiece of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, some New Yorkers felt like they were losing a “part of this city, part of us.”  The New York papers were outraged by the sale, the New York Herald called it the city’s “most egregious act of self-desecration since the demolition of Pennsylvania Station.”  The fact that the painting was sold to an heiress of Walmart to be housed in small-town Arkansas upset the NYC art community.

William Cullen Bryant Statue at Bryant Park, NYC

Thomas Bender of The New York Times felt that the painting was important because it “captures the story of New York’s emergence as the nation’s literary and artistic capital.”  He reasoned that since Cole and Bryant, who are featured in the painting, lived in New York and helped create “the infrastructure for intellectual and artistic work in the city” (Bryant helped establish the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park) the painting “embodies the beginning of New York’s metropolitan claims.”  While I am pretty sure Asher Durand was not trying to embody anything metropolitan (his work was fundamentally anti-urban and Cole’s disdain for the city is well-known), Durand and the two men featured in the painting were important to New York City’s artistic and intellectual history.

Unfortunately, critics of the sale forgot how important Kindred Spirits is to the nation’s, not just New York’s, artistic and intellectual history.  If Kindred Spirits has become representative of the Hudson River School (rightly or wrongly), then the painting should be viewed in the context of American artistic history as a whole.  The emergence of the movement, led by Thomas Cole and Durand, became our country’s first significant and original artistic movement.

Before the 1830s, American art was faux-European; portraiture was the chief focus.  The fine arts were seen by many as a frivolous luxury for the wealthy.  American painters made a living painting portraits, traveling from town to town, and often farm to farm, selling their talent.  Unlike in Europe, patronage was hard to come by because Americans tended to appreciate, as Tocqueville observed, usefulness more than the beautiful.  American artists emulated European art; they traveled to Europe to learn their trade in the French and Italian countryside.

By the 1820s, supporters of the arts began to equate art patronage to patriotism.  They claimed the beautiful could be useful and they called for uniquely American art.  In 1824, at the 10th Annual Exhibit of the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New York politician, writer, and early proponent of the arts Gulian Verplanck argued that the fine arts were useful “to adorn and dignify the aspect of society, to give impulse and exercise to the latent talent, and fresh luster to the glories of our nation – and by their moral influence upon all classes, to animate patriotism, to refine the manners, and elevate the character.”  Art, Verplanck said, “must not be regarded as the peculiar possession of painters, connoisseurs, or dilettanti.  The arts must be considered as liberal, in the ancient and truest sense as being worthy of the countenance and knowledge of every freeman.”

The movement that became known as The Hudson River School began in 1825 when the young artist Thomas Cole took a steamship up the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains.  Cole painted three paintings at the Catskills, two of which were immediately bought up by the artist John Trumbell and by Durand, who only did engraving (then widely considered the best American engraver) at the time.  William Cullen Bryant and Durand befriended Cole.  Cole’s landscapes of the Catskills became very popular, allowing him to live and work in Europe from 1829 to 1832.  A new attention to natural landscape and form gradually surrounded American art.

Thomas Cole

Durand began painting casually in 1830, became the president of the National Academy of Design in 1834, and was a successful portrait painter until he decided to make another career change.  An 1837 trip with Cole to the Adirondacks turned Durand’s eye toward landscapes.  After a yearlong European sojourn in 1840, Durand returned to the U.S. with increased skill and ambition.

Durand’s return coincided with the rise of the American Art-Union (originally the Apollo Association) which greatly contributed to the rise of public interest in art.  The organization offered its members, for five dollars a year, free admission to its gallery, at least one engraving from an original piece by an American artist, and entrance into a lottery for an original painting from the AAU’s collection.  Membership grew from 814 subscriptions in 1840 to 18,960 in 1851.  By the mid-1840s, the American art scene was in bloom (and, indeed, New York was its center).  Creating a national culture separate from Europe became important in Jacksonian America.  Literature and painting emphasized the things that made America unique: its democracy and its natural wilderness.  Artists began seeking an American identity, choosing native scenes instead of classical and venerating nature instead of the bourgeois.

Cole’s “Home in the Woods” (1847)

Cole and Durand thrived in the setting.  Their view of nature was celebrated by critics and the general public throughout the 1840s.  The Evening Post called the pair “the two most prominent landscape painters in this country – They are indeed artists of superior ability, and will undoubtedly hereafter looked upon as the founder of two American schools.”  Cole represented the allegorical, heroic wilderness and Durand the natural and pastoral.  Their work along with that from second generation Hudson River School painters, such as Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and John Frederick Kensett, helped shape American’s idea of wilderness, which was once (and justifiably) seen as a dangerous, God-less hinterland.  During the nineteenth century, the wilderness became a place to revere, enjoy, and even preserve.

Asher B. Durand

Kindred Spirits has come to be seen to embody the movement (even though it does not embody Durand’s work), probably because it depicts Cole (and the naturalist poet Bryant) and holds to the Hudson River School aesthetic.  The scene is picturesque and romanticized; the two men stand above the forest ground looking over the shimmering river, trees form a natural dome over their heads.  Kindred Spirits was well received by critics at its debut in 1849, but it was not overwhelming praise.  Since, it has become as iconic as any other American landscape painting.  The painting has transcended the artist’s reputation.  Kindred Spirits is noted more for what it has come to represent than for the man who created it.

Following Cole’s untimely death in 1848, Durand separated himself from his mentor by focusing on a more realistic look at nature.  In Kindred Spirits, Durand attended to geological and botanical accuracy, which became a necessity in his future work.  Durand’s greatest work came in the 1850s, after the age of 54, when he became a naturalist in the truest sense.  Art theorist Barbara Novak believes that Durand’s later works “break with all previous conventions.”[2]  They are “empirical, immediate, alive with the joy of fresh perceptions, they have a remarkably modern look…Trees and rocks are not relocated and shifted to accommodate a pre-existing concept, but seen close-up, directly transcribing the artist’s pragmatic experience in the American woods.”  Durand continued to paint and sketch until his death in 1886, long after the Hudson River School was seen as old-fashioned.

Durand’s “Study from Nature: Rocks and Trees” (1856)

If you want to see any of Durand’s paintings while you are in New York City this fall, you might be out luck.  The American paintings wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is closed until 2012 and the New York Historical Society, which houses many of Durand’s works, is closed for renovations until November.  The Brooklyn Museum of Art has one Durand currently on view.  Luckily, Northwest Arkansas residents will be able to see Durand’s most well-known painting on November 11 in a museum that celebrates America’s artistic history.

And if you want to see one of the grandest paintings by an artist who was born forty miles from the Crystal Bridges site and the greatest artist the Ozarks has produced, Thomas Hart Benton, walk into the AXA Equitable Life Insurance building on Sixth Ave (next to Radio City Music Hall).  Benton’s America Today, a nine panel mural, is on display in their sparse lobby accompanied by the building’s security desk and an escalator.  AXA bought the mural in 1984 from the New School for Social Research, who commissioned Benton’s talent in 1930.  A plaque created by AXA hangs near the mural and reads, “In February 1984, The Equitable purchased America Today, providing it with a permanent and prominent location as Benton had originally intended.”  Benton, who was driven out of New York by the art community of the time, surely did not intend this masterpiece to be in the lobby of multibillion dollar insurance company.  You won’t see any New Yorkers complaining about that.

Three panels of Benton’s “America Today” in the AXA Lobby

[1] William Cullen Bryant II, “Poetry and Painting: A Love Affair of Long Ago,” American Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 4 Winter, 1970), p. 881.

[2]  Barbara Novak and Ellen Foshay, Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, William Cullen Bryant (New York: New York Historical Society, 2000).

Further Reading:

Linda S. Ferber, ed., Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape (Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum, 2007).

H. Daniel Peck, “Unlikely Kindred Spirits: A New Vision of Landscape in the Works of Henry David Thoreau and Asher B. Durand,” American Literary History Vol. 23 Number 4 (2007) 687-713.