The World of Asher B. Durand: The Artist in Antebellum New York
"Asher B. Durand was one of the most important American artists of the 19th century, " says Dr. Linda S. Ferber, Vice President & Museum Director and curator of the exhibition. "He was a central figure as an artist, as a founder of art institutions, and as the dean of the American landscape school. His long career began with the earliest efforts of the American artists, writers and patrons also included here to construct a national cultural identity during the decades before the Civil War."
Durand participated in this collective enterprise from the very beginning, first as a master banknote and reproductive engraver, then as a portrait painter recording the features of the founding fathers as well as the mercantile and cultural elite of New York City before turning to landscape painting in the mid-1830s.
New York City was transformed during Durand's lifetime. It grew from a provincial city of 100,000 residents in 1817 to the second largest city on earth by the 1860s. In many ways, it became the city we recognize today—renowned for its wealth and energy. The city also became a cultural capital in the 19th century and Durand was a key player for some 50 years.
The World of Asher B. Durand recreates Durand's milieu by displaying his own works in juxtaposition with those by, or portraying, his circle of fellow artists, writers, critics, publishers and patrons. The installation in the Luman Reed Galleries is further enriched by a selection of fascinating historical artifacts, artist memorabilia, and documents.
Durand's own work is featured with a liberal display of the landscape paintings and drawings for which he is most famous, in addition to his early portraits (many of family members as well as of himself), genre subjects and engravings. The latter will include examples of the elaborate engraved banknotes on which he collaborated during the 1820s with his brother Cyrus Durand. The intricate brass lathe developed by Cyrus for the purpose (a gift to the Historical Society in 1863) is also included. Durand's striking "Self Portrait" of 1835 joins his powerful portrayal of octogenarian James Madison, painted from life in 1833. Over a dozen paintings and frames, including Durand's "Beacon Hills on the Hudson River, opposite Newburg"—painted on the spot, ca. 1852, were specially conserved for this exhibition.
His fellow artists in the exhibition include John Trumbull, William Dunlap, Thomas Cole, who presented his own "Study for Dream of Arcadia" to Durand in 1838, William Sidney Mount, Daniel Huntington, Francis W. Edmonds, John F. Kensett, Christopher Cranch, John W. Casilear, whose "Landscape" of 1852 also belonged to Durand as did Thomas H. Hotchkiss's "Catskill Mountains, Shandaken," 1856. Portrait busts of Durand's literary colleagues and collaborators, Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant are also included as well as one of distinguished critic, George William Curtis.
Durand's own association with the N-YHS was a long-term affair. He became an honorary member in 1821 after engraving the Historical Society's membership diploma. William T. Sherman's membership diploma will be displayed. Durand's paintings entered the collection in 1858 with the acquisition of Luman Reed's holdings in the form of the New-York Gallery of Fine Arts. Durand served on the Historical Society's art committee from 1872 until his death in 1886. The Historical Society purchased four splendid Studies from Nature at the sale of Durand's estate in 1887. The artist's descendants honored this long affiliation by depositing the family's collection of over 400 works in a series of gifts that today form the largest Durand collection in the world.
Asher B. Durand: The Artist in Antebellum New York and accompanying programs are made possible with the generous support of Ellen and Leonard Milberg; The Joanne Witty and Eugene Keilin Fund at the New York Community Trust; the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc.; the David Schwartz Foundation; Penelope and Logan D. Delany, Jr.; Irma R. Rappaport; the D. Perlow Fund at the New York Community Trust; and Eli Wilner, Inc.