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A devotion to nature

Durand's landscapes, one just sold to a private collection, are high points of San Diego show.

March 05, 2008|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — Asher B. Durand made headlines in 2005 for the first time in well over a hundred years, when one of his paintings sold for what was said to be more than $35 million.

The sale broke the record for the highest price paid at auction for an American painting and broke a lot of hearts by transferring ownership of the work from public to private hands. Alice Walton bought the 1849 picture, "Kindred Spirits," for the Walton Family Foundation (and its yet-to-be-opened Crystal Bridges Museum) from the New York Public Library.

The painting has been out on loan to a traveling Durand show now making its third and final stop at the San Diego Museum of Art. Docents hover around it to tell the story of its controversial, sealed-bid sale, setting visitors to oohing and aahing, but "Kindred Spirits" is not the most stirring painting in the show. The exhibition is long on tightly packaged, salon-style spectacle of the "Kindred Spirits" sort, but its quieter, more soulful moments are the most memorable.

Durand (1796-1886) initially trained as an engraver and became quite successful at copying the works of others and designing bank notes. In the 1820s, he ventured up the ladder of art world stature and began painting portraits. There too he enjoyed success, in the form of commissions to paint numerous notables.

He reached for another rung in the 1830s, when he began to focus on landscape, developing a friendship with Thomas Cole (1801-48), the outstanding American landscape painter of the day. However, he was careful in writing to his friend to describe himself as a "trespasser" on Cole's grounds, "not a poacher."

Long based in New York, Durand made a requisite trip to Europe in 1840-41 to school himself in the masters of the genre, confronting but not entirely assimilating the lessons of Claude Lorrain and John Constable. By 1848, when Cole died, Durand was director of the National Academy of Design and considered by many to be his friend's equal in landscape painting. Commissioned to paint a portrait of Cole, he produced "Kindred Spirits."

The painting shows Cole standing with poet William Cullen Bryant on a stone ledge overlooking a dramatic Hudson Valley landscape. In the immediate foreground, a tree's upper half has snapped from its trunk, an allusion perhaps to the sudden death of the vigorous and relatively young Cole. Gloriously full foliage arches over the men and frames the scene, from the mossy stone up close to the luminous overlapping hills beyond.

The figures of the men are markedly less natural in appearance than the leaves, rocks and trees. Durand could paint people -- several portraits in the show demonstrate how vividly he could convey an individual's presence -- and he could paint nature, but one or the other suffered when he tried to combine them, as he did in most of his landscapes. Shepherds, churchgoers or laborers embellish nearly all the vistas, but the figures feel more emblematic than real, as if they were storybook characters dropped onto an elaborate stage.

And a stage it was -- for the unfurling American drama of national identity. For painters of Durand's era, the landscape was clear proof of divinity and a vehicle to express the promise of the nation. The appearance of our dwelling place, Durand wrote, "is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning."

However awkward the small, doll-like figures in Durand's paintings, their presence affirmed the partnership between Americans and their God-given land. His epic 1853 "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)" spelled it out plainly: A group of Native Americans watch, from a patch of raw wilderness, as "civilization" makes its mark in the form of roads, canals, bridges, railroad tracks, settlements, the traffic of ships -- commerce tinged with the golden light of destiny.

Although not an avid Transcendentalist in the mold of Emerson or Thoreau, Durand believed strongly in the restorative powers of nature. During his lifetime, New York City's population swelled from fewer than 100,000 to more than a million, and Durand was among many who found a therapeutic antidote to the bustle of the city in the clefts and falls, valleys and vistas of the Adirondacks and Catskills. He painted en plein air and usually incorporated his outdoor studies into larger compositions executed in the studio. The dozen or so small studies in the exhibition weren't considered finished, stand-alone works, but they show Durand at his best, observing the forms and textures of nature with uninflected reverence, free from the conventions of the pastoral and bucolic. They provide the visual and visceral high points of the show.

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