Hudson River Painters: The Truth of Asher B. Durand

Opposites attract, so they say. That could well apply to the two foremost painters of the 19th-century Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886). Of course, they had much in common, most notably their incredible artistic gifts and their love for being outdoors in the open, away from the noise and bustle of the city. (If they complained about the noise and bustle then, can you imagine their reaction if they were to visit it today?)

But when it came to the details — to each man’s individual approach to their work — Cole and Durand were quite different. As a photographer, I like to put it this way: If they were landscape photographers working today, Cole would have been one of the first to own a digital camera and to take full advantage of all that Photoshop has to offer in the way of processing the photos. Durand, on the other hand, would still be using a film camera — one of those large-format ones, no doubt — and would make only the most minimal use, if at all, of photo processing software.

Durand painted what he saw. It’s as simple as that. He was one of the first in America to use the plein air technique, meaning that he actually painted outdoors, painted immediately what he saw. Some of his paintings are so exact that it’s possible even today to identify the spot from which he painted a particular scene.

Durand, Beacon Hills

Durand, Beacon Hills

One such painting is Beacon Hills on the Hudson River, Opposite Newburgh. Durand’s business was such that he had to live in New York City, but he took every opportunity, especially in the nice weather, to get out and travel, not only to paint but also to walk and fish (he was an avid sportsman). For a few years (roughly late 1840s–early 1850s) he owned a vacation home in or near Newburgh, in Orange County, from which one can look right across the Hudson River to Beacon, and it was there that he painted this picture (above).

DSC0117 Nik s

Since I don’t live far from Newburgh, I decided to test it out. Armed with my camera and my intuition, I drove up Route 9W and parked along Water Street. On the side of the street opposite the riverfront a hill rises up, leading to some homes as well as to the city’s historic district. Since Durand painted his picture from a height, I walked up the hill with my camera and tripod. It was easy, instantaneously to see what Durand had painted. Compare the contours of the mountain peaks to see what I mean.

I didn’t aim either to replicate exactly the contents of Durand’s painting (impossible anyway–there’s now a railroad running through the scene, apparently one reason why he gave up the house after three years or so) or to process my photo to resemble the painting. Interestingly, Durand loved clouds–he was of one mind with the English painter John Constable in that–and may well have envied the sky I had that day.

Durand, Dover Plains

Durand, Dover Plains

Another scene Durand painted that is claimed to be so exact that the spot can still be located is Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York. Dover Plains is near the Connecticut border and is, as I discovered, a challenging drive. I probably shouldn’t have trusted directions that say “When you pass the last house…” (last house where?), but I drove around and around and never found the spot. If anyone reading this can help me out, I’d be very grateful. Otherwise, one day I’ll conscript a volunteer into driving me there so I can watch out for the view.

This photograph isn’t in our new book, Historic Hudson Valley: A Photographic Tour, but plenty of other good photos are! Check it out here.

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