Plein Air Artist Asher B. Durand Wrote Me a Letter…Sorta…Not Really

Rocky Cliff by Asher B. Durand, oil on canvas, 1860.
Rocky Cliff by Asher B. Durand, oil on canvas, 1860.
Based on an article by Allison Malafronte.

As you all well know, I spend a lot of time writing. But I also spend a lot of time reading, and lately I have absolutely fallen in love with reading letters, journals, and diaries of artists. It is like truly "meeting" them after years of knowing them from their work alone. To get me in the right groove for the plein air painting season, I've been reading Asher B. Durand's Letters on Landscape Painting, which were published as a column in a magazine called The Crayon—before Crayola—a mid-19th century New York art journal.

Durand was a master engraver and a member of the Hudson River School. He's the one that did the engraving of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that everyone knows on sight, and as a painter, he was known for painting with as much realistic detail as possible. No surprise given his expertise with engraving. But most of all he was an ardent believer that Nature and Truth were inextricably linked.

In the Letters, Durand acts as a sort of 'Dear Abby' for landscape painters. If you had an outdoor painting stumper, you could write to Durand and he'd help you out. Granted, Durand's solutions are a lot more eloquent than Abby's—no offense—and here are the highlights of one of Durand's letters that I recently finished reading.

-Early on, Durand points out that "Art has its superstitions as well as religion," and that to avoid these you want to go out into Nature early to get your own impressions of beauty and sublimity directly from the source.

In the Woods by Asher B. Durand, oil on canvas, 1855.
In the Woods by Asher B. Durand,
oil on canvas, 1855.

-Now, here's a tidbit that reveals his bias. Durand tells his readers to take pencil and paper and "draw with scrupulous fidelity the outline or contour of such objects as you shall select…"

-He's not as interested in light and shadow or color, but specificity: "If your subject be a tree, observe particularly wherein it differs from those of other species…the character of its trunk and branches…"

-He's tough on painters who can't draw: "I know you will regard this as an unnecessary restriction. In this, you deceive yourself…for slovenly and imperfect drawing finds but a miserable compensation in the palpable efforts to disguise or atone for it, by the blandishments of color and effect." Burn!

-But he ends on a really nice note of support: "The humblest scenes of your successful labors will become hallowed ground to which…you will make many a joyous pilgrimage…" It is sort of like he is saying that art, no matter how the end product turns out, allows you to be transported to the places you encounter when you are painting en plein air. It's a lovely thought and one that sticks in my head.

It's like Durand is my plein air penpal! I can't wait to read more and put into practice many of the pointers he provides. I am also exploring plein air painting with instructors of the here and now. Plein Air Painting with Ian Roberts is a great place for me to start–see if it is right for you! Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.