Born in New Haven in 1820, the son of a Connecticut stationer, George Henry Durrie remained in that city virtually his entire life. Married to a choirmaster's daughter, Sarah Perkins, in 1841, he immersed himself in the quiet pursuits of family and church. While he never achieved the fame of the most renowned nineteenth century American landscape painters, he appears to have had a fulfilling, productive career. His letters show that he never felt the need to move beyond his community, although he once briefly took a studio in New York and exhibited there regularly at the National Academy of Design.
As young men George Durrie and his brother John, Jr. studied intermittently with the local portraitist Nathaniel Jocelyn (1796-1881) from 1839 to 1841. Around the same time, Durrie was also working as an intinerant artist: his record book lists portraits sold during visits to the Connecticut towns of Bethany, Hartford, Naugatuck, and Meriden. He also traveled successfully to Freehold, New Jersey, and Petersburg, Virginia, several times in the 1840s. Framing and decorative painting provided income for him early in this decade as well.
By 1845 local newspapers carried advertisements for Durrie's 'snow pictures' and his Sleighing Party was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in that year. Landscapes, which had first appeared as backgrounds in his portraits, became his primary focus. He painted local landmarks such as East Rock and West Rock, as well as composite scenes of rural life. Country inns and barnyards, scenes of human activity, became his most oft-used subjects. While he painted these in all seasons, his depictions of winter were most numerous, growing in frequency between 1854 and 1863. The artist died in New Haven on 17 October 1863.
Almost all of his compositions are relatively small in scale, few exceeding 18 x 24 inches, and his views are quiet and intimate. He knew and admired the works of Thomas Cole, and may have tried to emulate certain aspects of Cole's style, yet he eschewed the Hudson River School's compositional complexity and expansiveness. Because his paintings combined extensive genre elements with landscape they had a story-telling content that made them pleasant, accessible images to the average viewer. The lithographic firm of Currier & Ives successfully reproduced ten of Durrie's scenes and these, in turn, became popular calendar illustrations in the twentieth century. As a result, Durrie's depictions of rural life in the mid-nineteenth century are now among the most familiar images in all of American art. As Martha Hutson has noted, however, these printed pictures do not convey the keen sensitivity to and understanding of conditions of atmosphere and light that are so pronounced in Durrie's paintings. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
George Henry Durrie: Connecticut Artist, 1820-1863. Exh. cat. New Haven Colony Historical Society, Connecticut, 1966 (intro. by Colin Simkin).
Hutson, Martha Young. George Henry Durrie (1820-1863): American Winter Landscapist Renowned Through Currier and Ives. Santa Barbara, California, 1977.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 148-149.