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En Plein Air: Letters On Landscape Painting

7 Jan 2009

by Allison Malafronte

Study of Trees and Rocks, Catskill Mountains
by Asher B. Durand, ca. 1849, graphite on gray-green paper.

All painters, plein air or otherwise, can benefit from looking to the masters of the past who excelled in their particular subject matter, style, and medium and whose work has stood the test of time. The Hudson River School of painters are one of my favorite historical groups of artists, and it always inspires me not only to look at the works they created but also to read some of the insight and advice they offered their students and contemporaries.

Asher B. Durand, one of the leading artists of the Hudson River School, wrote a monthly column in a publication called The Crayon in which he advised artists in the ways of landscape painting and answered readers’ questions. These “Letters on Landscape Painting” now serve as a window into the artist’s mindset and thoughts during the creation of some of his greatest paintings.

A particularly enlightening letter from this column comes from an 1855 issue of The Crayon that is now in the collection of The New-York Historical Society. In it, Durand answers a reader’s question about how to best understand and portray the elements of landscape, and Durand’s response and admonition to spend endless hours sketching the forms of nature before painting them offers a timeless reminder of how important it is to work from life. I thought I would share an exerpt from this letter with all of you, and I hope it will encourage you to keep painting—and sketching—en plein air!

Dear Sir:

I refer you to Nature early, that you may receive your first impression of beauty and sublimity, unmingled with the superstitions of Art—for Art has its superstitions as well as religion—that you may learn to paint with intelligence and sincerity—that your works shall address themselves to intelligent and sympathetic minds, and spare you the mortification of ever seeing them allotted to swell the lumber of the garret and the auction room.

A Brook in the Woods

by Asher B. Durand,
ca. 1854, graphite
and white gouache
on prepared gray-green
paper.

Form is the first subject to engage your attention. Take pencil and paper, not the palette and brushes, and draw with scrupulous fidelity the outline or contour of such objects as you shall select, and, so far as your judgment goes, choose the most beautiful or characteristic of its kind. If your subject be a tree, observe particularly wherein it differs from those of other species; in the first place, the termination of its foliage, best seen when relieved on the sky, whether pointed or rounded, drooping or springing upward, etc., etc.,; next mark the character of its trunk and branches, the manner in which the latter shoot off from the parent stem, their direction, curves, and angles. Every kind of tree has its traits of individuality—some kinds assimilate, others differ widely—with careful attention, these peculiarities are easily learned, and so, in a greater or less degree, with all other objects. By this course you will also obtain the knowledge of that natural variety of form, so essential to protect you against frequent repetition and monotony. A moment’s reflection will convince you of the vital importance of drawing, and the continual demand for its exercise in the practice of outline, before you begin to paint.

I know you will regard this at first thought as an unnecessary restriction, and become impatient to use the brush, under the persuasion that you can with it make out your forms, and at the same time produce color, and light, and shade. In this you deceive yourself—as many others have done, till the consequent evil has become irremediable, 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.

Practice drawing with the pencil till you are sure of your hand, and not only that,--till you shall have learned by heart the characteristic forms of all objects, animals, and the human figure included, so far as you may require their use in pictures; no matter how long it takes, it will be time gained. You will say that I impose on you a difficult and painful task: difficult it is, but not painful nor ungrateful, and let me assure you that its faithful performance is accompanied by many enjoyments that experience only can enable you to appreciate. Every step of conscious progress that you make, every successful transcript of the chosen subject, will send a thrill of pleasure to your heart, that you will acknowledge to give you the full measure of compensation.

Pitch Pines, North Mountain, Catskills, New York
by Asher B. Durand, 1848, graphite on gray-green paper.
As a motive to meet with courage and perseverance every difficulty in the progress of your studies, and patiently to endure the frequent discouragements attending your failures and imperfect errors, so long as your love for Nature is strong and earnest, keeping steadily in view the high mission of the Art you have chosen, I can promise you that the time will come when you will recall the period of these faithful struggles with a more vivid enjoyment than that which will accompany the old man’s recollections of happy childhood. The humblest scenes of your successful labors will become hallowed ground to which, in memory at least, you will make many a joyous pilgrimage, and, like Rousseau, in the fullness of your emotions, kiss the very earth that bore the print of your oft-repeated footsteps.

There is yet another motive to referring you to the study of Nature early—its influence on the mind and heart. The external appearance of this our dwelling-place, apart from its wondrous structure and functions that minister to our well-being, is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation. It is impossible to contemplate with right-minded, reverent feeling, its inexpressible beauty and grandeur, for ever assuming now forms of impressiveness under the varying phases of cloud and sunshine, time and season, without arriving at the conviction, “That all of which we behold is full of blessings,” that the Great Designer of these glorious pictures has placed them before us as types of the Divine attributes, and we were insensibly, as it were, in our daily contemplations, “To the beautiful order of his works learn to conform the order of our lives.”

Thus regarding the objects of your study, the intellect and feelings become elevated and purified, and in your proportion as your acquire executive skill, your productions will, unawares, be imbued with that undefinable quality recognized as sentiment or expression which distinguishes the true landscape from the mere sensual and striking picture.

Truly Yours,
A.B. Durand

Excerpted from The Crayon, Vol. 1, No. 3, January 17, 1855. Reprinted in The New-York Journal of American History, volume 46, number 4 (The New York Historical Society, New York, New York).




 


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Comments

on 8 Jan 2009 7:44 PM

From my heart and soul, nature is our best teacher.  Once you begin to study the endless designs found in nature you will understand that we can never begin to top her beauty.  The more you study her color and design the more you will want to study it.  An artist should always alllow themselves the time to go outside of the studio and sketch.  It is food to the soul.

DLM4 wrote
on 16 Jan 2009 12:10 PM

The best advice, eloquently written. Beautiful drawings! Allison, where did you find these? I have searched the internet for more of his drawings and have not had much luck.

Thanks!

on 16 Jan 2009 1:46 PM

Hi, DLM,

I actually went to the New-York Historical society to check out the publication that he wrote for (The Crayon)  because I heard they have several issues in their collection. I was going to photocopy the drawings and the writings from their bound volumes, but someone suggested I look in their gift shop for books on Durand because they would feature his drawings as well as his "Letters on Landscape Painting."

So....I went to the gift shop and found the book: "The New-York Journal of American History: The World of Asher B. Durand." I of course bought it, and brought it back to the office to scan the images and excerpt the text.

I'm sure you can order it through their website or call to have it mailed to you if you want. There a couple different books with reproductions of his drawings: http://www.nyhistorystore.com/

Hope that helps!

DLM4 wrote
on 29 Jan 2009 11:24 AM

Thank you!! It did!  In your interview with Clyde Aspevig, he commented on a more thoughtful response in the interpretation of the landscape by being more familiar with it...intimately familiar, as Asher B. Durand states here.

This is GODD STUFF!!!