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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Thomas Cole House Honors Art Historian Barbara Novak

Barbara Novak reflects on her distinguished career.

Barbara Novak reflects on her distinguished career.

Anyone seriously interested–and I don’t only mean professionals, but also people like me who are amateurs in the true sense of the word–in 19th-century American landscape painting owes a huge debt to Barbara Novak, whether or not they are even aware of it. As a doctoral student researching in Europe in the mid-1950s for her PhD dissertation on 15th-century Flemish art, Barbara Novak decided to defy convention and switch her topic to the Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. Completing her dissertation in 1957, she joined the faculty of Barnard College the following year, and thus began a long and distinguished career of research, writing, teaching, and mentoring new research students, all of which compelled the art world to take seriously a topic that until then was virtually completely ignored. Her book trilogy Nature  and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, and now Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels, and Patterns in American Art and Literature are classics in the field.

Elizabeth Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, offers a welcome to the audience.

Elizabeth Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, offers a welcome to the audience.

On Sunday April 14, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site honored Barbara Novak’s outstanding contributions to American art scholarship with a program in her honor, in which leading art scholars Ella M. Foshay, Annette Blaugrund, Adrienne Baxter Bell, and Karen Wilkin, along with literary scholar H. Daniel Peck and photographer Susan Wides each paid tribute to Dr. Novak and explained her influence on their own lives and careers. A true Renaissance woman, Dr. Novak is also a poet as well as a painter, and fifth-grader Isaac Barnes, the son of Thomas Cole Site Trustee David Barnes, read a selection of her poetry with stunning poise. Her husband, artist, author, and art critic Brian O’Doherty, was also on hand to pay special tribute to his remarkable wife–he referred to the “Barbara Diaspora”–“her students are everywhere.”

Brian O'Doherty, Dr. Novak's husband, said that no one can claim to have been more influenced by her than he!

Brian O’Doherty, Dr. Novak’s husband, said that no one can claim to have been more influenced by her than he!

Finally, Dr. Novak herself offered her own reflections on her life and career. A painter herself even before embarking on the academic study of art history, she was overwhelmed at the thought that her own paintings of flowers were now hanging in Thomas Cole’s house: “I hope he doesn’t mind,” she said. About Cole, whom she called “one of the great intellectual artists” in America, she commented that it’s impossible to exhaust his riches in a lifetime.

One has to admire not only the breadth and depth of learning and reflection Dr. Novak has brought to her chosen area of study over the years, but also the vision of the young doctoral student who, on a Fulbright grant in Europe, noted that “there were plenty of 15th-century Flemish scholars doing the same things over and over,” saw the potential in doing something new, and embarked on a lifetime study of the group she calls “my guys”–Cole, Durand, and their colleagues.

Isaac Barnes shows another side of Dr. Novak by reciting some of her poetry.

Isaac Barnes shows another side of Dr. Novak by reciting some of her poetry.

On Sunday April 28, one of the speakers at Dr. Novak’s tribute will take the podium in her own right: Annette Blaugrund, curator of the 2013 exhibition at the Thomas Cole Site Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England, will introduce the exhibition with a lecture at 2 pm. This is followed by a reception and open house from 3 to 4 pm. Why not take this opportunity to make the acquaintance of one of the leading exponents of the second generation of Hudson River School Artists?