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Ah, the Hudson River School — what a world of promise and moral destiny it portrayed. The mid-19th century art movement helped to create Americans’ sense of ourselves as a magnificent nation, blessed by God with the craggy mountains, thundering waterfalls, and pastoral vistas that were our due. Artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt all staked their claim to this grand vision. The landscapes they painted of the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, Niagara Falls, and the Rockies were ambitious images of the country — what they saw and what they felt the land must represent. “The good, the enlightened of all ages and nations,” Cole wrote in his 1836 “ Essay on American Scenery,” “have found pleasure and consolation in the beauty of the rural earth.” And in his 1855 “Letters on Landscape Painting,” Durand asked, “Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” Today those words are inscribed on the gallery wall just above the painting “In the Woods” as part of a new show of Durand’s work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape” gathers 57 paintings by the man some call the dean of the Hudson River School. It’s the first major Durand retrospective in 35 years, the Smithsonian says — and well worth a visit. While he wasn’t the Hudson River School’s founder (that was Cole) or its most flamboyant artist (think of Church’s paintings of Niagara Falls or the Andes), Durand was its steady man, productive and reliable, a member of the first generation who lived to the age of 90. His early training was in engraving, and his works have that meticulous, detailed approach in which every leaf stands out, every shaft of sunlight falls precisely on sheep waiting alongside a stream or a wave breaking on a beach. The centerpiece of the show is the famous “Kindred Spirits,” created as an homage to Cole following the latter’s sudden death of pleurisy at age 47. The 1849 painting depicts Cole alongside his friend, the poet William Cullen Bryant, on a rocky ledge in the Catskills. It’s an imaginary meeting in a composite landscape. Kaaterskill Falls peeks through the rift in the mountains far in the distance, and the two men stand looking outward, yet slightly turned toward each other as if about to speak. Commissioned by New York arts patron Jonathan Sturges as a gift for Bryant, the painting became one of the Hudson River School’s most celebrated works. In 2005, it was sold to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton for a reported $35 million — at the time, the highest price ever paid for an American painting. What’s left unsaid is that “Kindred Spirits” is not Durand’s best work. It has a sort of glossy, Thomas Kincaide feel to it, more pretty and safe than the wilder, braver works of later Hudson River School artists. And in fact, if Durand has a flaw, it is just that cozy pastoralism that shows up, particularly in his earlier works when he was influenced more by the masters of European landscapes than by Cole’s new, fully American approach to art. The vast, untamed nature of the American landscape was a source of inspiration to the Hudson River School painters — especially to the second generation, such as Church, who took the prettiness and made it breathtakingly gorgeous instead. Consider the painting “Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York,” which is a fine example of Durand at his best. A panorama of rolling farmland backed by the Catskills, it’s a restful scene — just perfect for that spot above the fireplace. But it doesn’t make the heart stop the way Church’s “Cotopaxi” does, with its dramatic depiction of an erupting South American volcano. Durand was also a talented portrait artist: His own self-portrait and his take on Cole both seem to glimpse the souls of their subjects. And his plein-air sketches made during summer camping trips in the Adirondacks and Catskills show the conscientious study that he carried over into his 40 years of landscape painting. “Go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape,” Durand wrote, for there you will find “all the great first principles of art.” “Kindred Spirits” will be on view until Jan. 6, 2008.
Debra Bruno can be reached at [email protected].

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