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).

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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.


Nothing Is So Beautiful as Spring

What’s this? Am I channeling Gerard Manley Hopkins? Well, in thinking of an appropriate title for this blog post I didn’t think the great Jesuit poet would object if I borrowed the opening line of one of his best-loved poems. It seems appropriate if for no other reason than that the images I’m about to share with you illustrate the truth of that statement: “Nothing is so beautiful as spring.”

I was just sharing these pictures with the readers of my photo blog and describing how I processed the images. I’ll spare you those details — just thought you might enjoy seeing the beauty of the Northern Catskills in the second week of May, a time of year whose color to me is second only to fall. In fact my son, Anton, once referred to spring as “pre-fall.”

The first two images are actually completely separate photos and not two different versions of the same original. If you’d like to comment, I’d be interested in hearing which of the two you prefer.

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Olana Educates and Entertains

The Olana State Historic Site, the fabulous mansion and estate constructed by 19th-century landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), is more than well worth the drive up the Thruway, or the Taconic State Parkway, or whatever road you choose to take to get there. Guided tours of the mansion are available. Or you can choose simply to walk the miles of trails that take you through this incredible landscape (bring your lunch; there are plenty of places to stop and enjoy it). Or you may want to take advantage of the amazing variety of events organized at Olana, including the informative lectures given by experts in their various fields.

Dr. David Schuyler chats with audience members after his lecture.

Dr. David P. Schuyler gave one such lecture recently, on the Sanctified Landscape (be sure to check out his book by the same title!). A professor of American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College and a native of Newburgh, New York, Dr. Schuyler spoke compellingly about historical memory and the need for “tangible remains of the past” to keep those memories alive. He certainly brought General George Washington to life in an incomparably vivid fashion, especially the Washington of the final months of the Revolutionary War who lived in the Hasbroucks’ House in Newburgh and traveled down to the Last Encampment of the colonial troops near what is now Vails Gate.

From history to geology–an upcoming event will feature a talk by well-known local geologist Dr. Robert Titus. Olana is easily reached off the Taconic Parkway and from Exit 21 off I-87. Check out Olana’s website¬†where you can also sign up to receive emailed updates–and if you visit before the end of October, absolutely do not miss the stunning photography exhibit by Peter Aaron, Olana’s Dynamic Landscape, in the Coachman’s House.

Tours of the mansion were booked solid on this gorgeous late summer day.

Visitors enjoy the view of the Hudson River and the Catskills from Olana’s great lawn.

Sara J. Griffen, President of the Olana Partnership, greets visitors arriving for Dr. Schuyler’s lecture.