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Woodland Path

On view

Woodland Path

Artist: Asher B. Durand (American, 1796-1886)

Date: 1846
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Framed: 29 x 25 x 4 1/4in. (73.7 x 63.5 x 10.8cm)
Image: 21 1/2 x 17 1/4in. (54.6 x 43.8cm)
Signed: Lower left, center: "A.B.D."
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 86.62
Label Text
Durand painted some of the Hudson River School's most canonical landscapes during his long, productive, and critically-acclaimed career. He also painted numerous tree studies which served as source material for his studio compositions. These outdoor oil studies are acclaimed for their spontaneity, reverence for nature, and their significance as examples of mid-19th-century "plein-air" painting.

The Museum's picture of a forest interior with two species of trees seemingly embracing is a recurrent motif in Durand's nature studies. Many of these works were executed in a vertical format, a compositional device used earlier in the century by the English landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837). More unusual in the Museum's painting are the small strokes of paint that define the forms, colors, and textures of the trees' leaves and trunks. Other outdoor tree studies by Durand are more thinly painted, or were only partially completed. Although Durand probably began the Museum's picture out-of-doors, its buttery surface suggests that he also worked on the picture in his studio, a setting that was more conducive for him to execute the painterly brushstrokes evident in this work. The presence of the artist's initials "A.B.D." on the leaf of a plant in the left foreground suggests that Durand even considered this work a completed painting instead of an informal oil sketch.

The fragment of an old paper label that has survived on the painting's original stretcher indicates that the work was owned by Charles Lanman (1819-95), a government official, librarian, explorer, and talented painter, who studied with Durand and was friends with numerous artists through his membership in the National Academy of Design. Lanman is remembered today as one of the most insightful writers on art in mid-19th-century America.

Paul D. Schweizer

In what might be a reference to the MWP picture, Lanman wrote in his Letter to the Editor: "An Aged Artist at Home" (photocopy in MWP files), The Tribune [Washington, D.C.], December, 23, 1882. "In the library, I noticed a charming watercolor [Lady with her Page and Dog] from the pencil of John G. Chapman, which I presented to Mr. Durand in 1847, in return for one of his own pictures given to me in the same year."

Paul D. Schweizer
January, 2013
Text Entries

Asher B. Durband had been America’s most eminent engraver before his inclination toward painting caused him to give up the burin for the brush in 1834, when he was nearly forty years old. After concentrating on portraiture in the late 1830s, he went to Europe for a brief visit, and by about 1841 he committed himself to landscape painting, doing so with the encouragement of his good friend, Thomas Cole, and his patron, Luman Reed. Cole had already turned to fantasy landscapes that were didactic tableaux in history and morality for which most American patrons did not really care, and Frederic Church had not yet become the dominating force he was after about 1855; during the decade following 1845, Durand was the most popular member of the so-called Hudson River School of American landscapists. It was early in this period that he painted the picture the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art now owns—Woodland Path, which is related to his famous Beeches of 184 5 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and his celebrated Kindred Spirits of 1849 (New York Public Library).(1)

Durand, under the influence of Cole, had tried his hand at idealized, historiated landscapes, converting American scenes into classical allegories or medieval reveries, but he soon rejected this type as foreign to him as an artist and to the taste of his patrons. Instead, Durand took the American wilderness and domesticated rural scene as his themes. He painted innumerable secluded woodland nooks, in which no human presence is to be found; majestic old trees assumed the starring roles, as in Woodland Path. Durand once wrote: “The true province of landscape art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation, independent of man, or not dependent upon human action.”(2) The fervor with which a contemporary critic might respond to his visions is evident in Henry Tuckerman’s comments: “There is great individuality in Durand’s trees. This is a very desirable characteristic for an artist who deals with American scenery. No country boasts more glorious sylvan monarchs . . . [and] each genus presents novel specimens eminently worthy of accurate portraiture.”(3)

The Woodland Path was probably executed as a sketch, but the term “sketch” needs some clarification in relation to Durand’s method of working. He was among the first to paint from nature, on location out of doors, and he frequently painted rather highly finished studies, which would later, back in the studio during the winter months, be combined to produce larger canvases. There are several similar studies of about the same size and date at the New York Historical Society.(4) While some of their compositional problems may not be resolved, these sketches often possess an intimacy and a spontaneity that are lost in Durand’s larger “finished” pictures.

Durand’s son, John, has left us a perceptive description of the way his father worked, and it applies well to Woodland Path:

My father’s practice was, while faithfully painting what he saw, not to paint all that he saw. Finding trees in groups, he selected one that seemed to him, in age, color, or form, to be the most characteristic of its species, or, in other words, the most beautiful. In painting its surroundings, he eliminated all shrubs and other trees which interfered with the impression made by this one. Every outdoor study . . . was regarded as a sort of dramatic scene in which a particular tree or aspect of nature may be called the principal figure.(5)

A label on the stretcher indicates that the picture at one time belonged to Charles Lanman, the author and some-time-artist. Durand and Lanman were very close, and the Institute’s picture may well have been a gift from the artist to his friend and erstwhile pupil. A painting, also titled Woodland Path and of about the same dimensions, was listed in the sale of Lanman’s collection in 1915.(6)

 

Notes

1. David B. Lawall, Asher B. Durand: A Documentary Catalogue ofthe Narrative and Landscape Paintings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978), p. 171, no. 328.

2. Asher B. Durand, “Letters on Landscape Painting VIII,” The Crayon, vol. 1 (June 6, 1855), P. 354.

3. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (New York: 1867; repr., New York: James F. Carr, Publisher, 1967), p. 193.

4. See, for example, Richard Koke et al., American Landscape and Genre Paintings in the New-York Historical Society (New York: The New-York Historical Society, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 322-23, nos. 628 and 632 for similar “portraits” of trees on canvases of similar size. I am indebted to my colleague Paul D. Schweizer for calling these similarities to my attention.

5. John Durand, The Life and Times of A.B. Durand (New York: 1894; repr., New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), p. 188.

6. Catalogue Of A Collection OfBric-a-Brac, Paintings, Office Furniture, Etc. From The Estate Of The Late Charles Lanman . . . To Be Sold At Auction Thursday and Friday Afternoons February 18th and 19th, 1915 . . . At The Merwin Galleries, 16 East 40th Street, New York, (New York, 1915) p. 22, no. 191.

 

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