When you see The Indian Vespers, you don’t have to be a sentimentalist to feel a pang for the unstewarded wildness that would soon enough be “tamed,” as the red man would be tamed, by the encroachments of industry. (Who needs to unpack the irony that The Indian Vespers hangs in the White House?) Durand lived till 1887, though he ceased painting about ten years before his death, and he lived through Indian wars, increased industrialization, the Depression of 1837, the Nativist fanaticism Scorsese dramatized in Gangs of New York, the Civil War, New York’s draft riots and lynchings, the imperatives of Manifest Destiny, and the beginnings of the Gilded Age.
Two pictures in the exhibition give a sense of Durand’s response to changes other than atmospheric. His First Harvest in the Wilderness of 1855 (painted the same year Whitman’s Leaves of Grass appeared) carves a neatly squared-off hayfield and serpentine thoroughfare from an otherwise irregular, bristling, as yet untended natural surround. And Progress (The Advance of Civilization) from 1853 illustrates commerce seating itself into the overarching and still bossy domain of nature. Herders and farmers go about their work under sinking light, while in the distance appear wee steamboats, a train crossing a trestle, a settlement, lakeside houses, and a church spire. Far to the left, several Indians gather close to trees as if in council over the consequences of an engineered natural order.
Durand the painter never really gave up engraving, he just brought over its qualities to his canvases. One of the finest things in the exhibition, Primeval Forest, a sepia monochrome made apparently as a cartoon for a future picture, looks like a large gestural drawing, dematerialized and transparent, an image of nature inspirited. In many paintings, Durand’s engraver’s art shows to advantage in incised, sharply drawn bulging tree roots and boles. In Primeval Forest these values are carried through the entire scene. It has a passion for the simplicity of the sublime, its homely bewitchments. Durand is at the same time a placid painter and busy draftsman. In Primeval Forest, the sepia pales to a pillowed white shore of a stream and darkens to nearly black scraggly treetops. There’s something enchanted in this scene missing from other of Durand’s pictures; enchantment, too, in the smaller canvases of beeches, which have a more assertive energy and touch than the larger landscapes. The most beautiful object in the show is a drawing of Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire: its angelically deft touch makes even the faintest line speak of quiet un-histrionic devotion.
Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape
San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, April 27. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.