The Colby Museum is pleased to announce the acquisition of Asher B. Durand’s Catskill Mountains Near Shandaken, now on view in the Arthur Vining Davis Gallery. Trained initially as an engraver, Durand (1796–1886) became best-known a member of the Hudson River School, a mid-nineteenth-century group of artists dedicated to painting the American landscape. In this post, Justin McCann, Lunder Curator for Whistler Studies, offers insights into this work and its contemporary relevance.
Asher B. Durand and Edward Nelson had to take cover for the night. They had ventured deep into the woods of Ulster County, New York, just west of the Hudson River, on a sketching trip and needed a place to stash their art supplies. They found a hollowed-out log and packed it full with their “apparatus.” Every day they returned to this log to recover their belongings and to start hiking in search of vistas and forest interiors to sketch. After finding a compelling view, Durand and Nelson would open their camp stools and folding canvases and work diligently, carefully describing in paint what was before them. On a typical trip Durand would remain for weeks and sometimes months, bringing back to his New York City studio several completed paintings.
Durand and Nelson’s artistic sojourn in the heart of the Hudson River Valley took place in 1855. It was by no means Durand’s first or only visit there. Ulster County had become a second home to him by the 1850s, and he visited the region nearly every summer during the decade. It would have been on one of these trips under very similar conditions—quite possibly with Nelson, a businessman, amateur artist, and Durand’s patron—that he had painted Catskill Mountains Near Shandaken. Whether he went on that trip or not, Nelson liked the painting and bought it before it was first exhibited in 1853.
Durand was the leading landscape painter of his generation and the dean of the Hudson River School—a group of landscape painters working primarily in the northeast United States in the 1840s and 1850s. He fervently advocated for plein air painting (painting out of doors) and the close observation of nature. For Durand, though, this wasn’t just a mode of practice; it was a way of living and working in communion with the very subject matter he put on canvas. It was a spiritual experience that he hoped would be transmitted from his paintings to those viewing them. Durand laid out his transcendentalist belief in the power of art in his “Letters on Landscape Painting,” published in Crayon magazine in 1855. “The true province of Landscape Art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation,” he wrote. Nature and landscape painting, Durand believed, could play a moralizing role in the lives of Americans: “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.”
Durand was not alone in his devotion to the natural world in the 1850s. A “Christianized naturalism,” as the art historian Barbara Novak described it, pervaded American society at the time. Artists, poets, and naturalists alike discovered God’s presence in nature. Thomas Cole, artist and mentor to Durand and the founder of the Hudson River School, described looking at nature as the “contemplation of eternal things.” The rugged mountains and vast wilderness of the Northeast were the centerpiece of an iconography of American promise and potential, spiritually, economically, and politically. Landscape painting constructed an image of America rooted in the natural world, representing national values and beliefs of progress for a growing upper and middle-class audience.
Tourism to the Hudson River Valley and to New England boomed in these years. Americans flocked to these pastoral, idyllic places to seek refuge from rising urbanization and industrialization. In the mountains, on the lakes, and along the seashore, visitors like Nelson could appreciate the beauty and free themselves from the burdens of busy modern life by absorbing themselves in nature. City parks emerged during this period, providing year-round access to nature for urbanites of all classes. Central Park in New York was opened in 1857 and the Boston Public Garden, though officially founded in 1837, was cultivated as a public green space in the late 1850s. The first calls for the protection of the environment were made in the 1850s with the encroachment of humans, riverboats, trains, and hotels into previously untouched wooded lands and open fields.
What of the fallen tree in the foreground of Catskill Mountains Near Shandaken? Is it a reminder of the life cycle of forests, of birth, death, decay, and eventual rebirth? Or is it a warning about the threat humans pose to the environment—as spiritual seekers, admirers of the picturesque, and as hostile intruders? These are all viable ways of reading this painting today and are also ways in which Americans at the time saw the painting. The environmental crisis of our age has its historical antecedents in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time when Americans first articulated the conflict between progress and preservation, spirituality and economic growth, paradoxes at the heart of humans’ relationship with nature. A range of academic disciplines outside of art history—literary studies, environmental studies, religion, history, to name but a few—also consider how these historical debates have shaped and still shape our attitudes toward the world around us.
Catskill Mountains Near Shandaken exemplifies the power of landscape painting to convey multiple types of political and social ideologies. The painting speaks to the pivotal role played by art in visualizing an environmental consciousness that shaped Americans’ perceptions about their relationship to the natural world and the need to steward it responsibly—certainly a message that resounds with us today.