Asher B. Durand was born on August 21, 1796, in Jefferson Village (now Maplewood), New Jersey, and studied engraving with his father, a watchmaker and silversmith. From 1812 to 1817 he was apprenticed to the New Jersey engraver Peter Maverick. In 1817 he formed a partnership with Maverick and opened a branch of the firm in New York. Around 1818 Durand began informal study and drawing from plaster casts at the American Academy of Fine Arts, where his work came to the attention of the Academy's president, John Trumbull (1756-1843). In 1820 Trumbull commissioned Durand to engrave his painting The Declaration of Independence (1787-1820, Yale University Art Gallery). Durand became a leading engraver, and enjoyed considerable success producing bank notes, book illustrations, portraits, and copies after other artists' works.
In the 1820s and 1830s Durand owned a series of printmaking firms and was active in New York cultural circles. In 1825 he helped organize the New York Drawing Association, which in 1826 became the National Academy of Design, with Durand as one of the fifteen founding members. In these same years he was also involved with several other arts groups, including James Fenimore Cooper's Bread and Cheese Club and the Sketch Club.
In the early 1830s Durand worked less frequently as an engraver and began painting portraits. Around 1835, inspired by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and encouraged by the prominent New York merchant and art patron Luman Reed (1785-1836), Durand ended his career as an engraver in favor of painting. Continuing to produce portraits, he also created in the mid-1830s a number of paintings based on historical subjects and genre themes. In 1837 he accompanied Cole on a sketching trip to the Schroon Lake region in the Adirondacks and the following year he contributed nine landscapes to the annual National Academy of Design exhibition. In 1838 and 1839 he again made summer sketching trips and contributed landscapes to the Academy exhibitions. In 1840 he exhibited Landscape, Composition, Morning and Landscape, Composition, Evening (both National Academy of Design), an allegorical pair inspired by Cole.
In the summer of 1840 Durand went with fellow artists John F. Kensett (1816-1872), John Casilear (1811-1893), and Thomas P. Rossiter (1818-1871) to Europe, where he studied the works of Old Masters, especially Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). After his return to New York in July 1841 he exhibited paintings of European scenery, but he soon resumed summer sketching tours in the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley. In 1845 Durand was named president of the National Academy, a position he would hold until 1861. He increasingly believed that direct study of nature should be the primary inspiration for American artists and began producing meticulously painted works that were much admired for their faithful depictions of natural forms and light and atmosphere. Such works also expressed sentiments similar to those in the poetry of his friend William Cullen Bryant, and several of his paintings of the 1850s were directly inspired by Bryant poems.
Following Cole's death in 1848 Durand assumed a leading role in the American landscape school and exerted considerable influence on many younger painters. His Kindred Spirits of 1849 (New York Public Library), painted in memory of Cole, almost immediately became one of the best-known paintings in the country. By the 1850s Durand had perfected the two compositional types that became basic to Hudson River School painting, the vertical forest interior and the landscape panorama. With the publication of nine "Letters on Landscape Painting" in the New York art journal The Crayon in 1855, Durand codified the tenets and practices of Hudson River School as instructions addressed to an imaginary student. Espousing theories similar to those of the influential British critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), he advised American painters to work directly from nature and to give precedence to New World subjects over European ones.
During the 1860s Durand followed his established routine of sketching in the summers and painting in New York during the winters. In April 1869 he moved back to New Jersey from New York to a new house and studio built on family property in Maplewood, where he remained for the rest of his life. He continued to paint, with most of his works of the 1870s (his last picture was completed in 1878) repeating compositions from earlier decades, although often with a more atmospheric and tonal handling of light. He died on 17 September 1886. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Huntington, Daniel. Asher B. Durand: A Memorial Address. New York, 1887.
Durand, John. The Life and Times of A.B. Durand. New York, 1894.
Lawall, David B. A. B. Durand, 1796-1886. Exh. cat. Montclair Museum of Art, New Jersey, 1971.
Lawall, David B. Asher B. Durand: His Art and Theory in Relation to His Times. New York, 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: 135-136.