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When the painter Asher Durand first journeyed to New York as a teenager in 1817, from his rural home in Essex County, New Jersey, the city was a knockabout place of 10,000 souls — without public schools, sewer system, effective law enforcement, or firefighting — dispersed among helter-skelter structures, fields, and thoroughfares where pigs and chickens scavenged merrily underfoot. During the 40 years he spent there, mostly in Greenwich Village, rising to prominence in what would come to be called the Hudson River School of landscape painting, Durand watched New York become the most important city in the world, inhabited by over a million people and churning with new industry, commerce, and artistic activity. When he made his virgin foray to the city, Durand had no notion of becoming a painter. Because as a youth he’d shown considerable gifts as a draftsman, the obvious career choice was in the potentially lucrative work of engraving, so he went seeking an apprenticeship. In time, Durand was running his own successful operation, specializing in portraits, old master knock-offs, official documents, and banknotes. Except for a year spent in Europe, he stayed in the city until retiring in 1870 to his home grounds in what is now Maplewood, New Jersey, where he lived out his 91 years.

When he took up painting in the 1830s, he went the conventional route of portraiture and genre painting but also made the landscape pictures he’d become famous for. He came of age as an artist when critics and connoisseurs were calling for a nativist art that spoke to America’s freshness, aspirations, and piety. By temperament, Durand’s ambitions overlapped with the spirit of transcendentalism, the pantheistic courting of a mystical sublime. Transcendentalism — to barbarize its complexity with simplification — held that creation was united and watched over by what Emerson called the “oversoul,” and the “spirit-reality” that transcends our contingent existence also veins and floods all of nature, if only we have eyes to see. When Durand found his true métier painting the pastures, valleys, woods, and mountains of the Catskills, he was unabashed about making art a testimony of devotional attention. “The true province of Landscape Art,” he wrote, “is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation.”

An appropriately subdued exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art deploys a bounty of Durand’s achievements. He was a good if not great artist, and the show’s over 50 pictures and drawings lay out his variety. Display too much work by an artist like Durand and you risk exposing his limitations, but I’m not here to bang away at shortcomings. The past 40 years of growing critical attention proves he’s a painter to be reckoned with, especially if we want to understand his particular articulation of the American Sublime. The Oxford American Dictionary tucked inside my laptop defines “sublime” thus: “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” Durand’s homespun Sublime inflected awe in shimmering sunrises and sunsets, silvered mountain streams, and craggy trees that look like creatures out of Tolkien; deposited in these settings are small genre scenes of farmhouses, herdsmen, flocks of sheep, and pastoral folk working, picnicking, or frolicking.

An important turn in Durand’s development came with his visit to Europe in 1840. His firsthand experience of landscapes by Claude Lorrain and John Constable, and the fête galante pictures of Watteau, consolidated his desire to cultivate a keener sense of how light defines our feeling for the natural order. For a New York painter, that mattered. California’s light can seethe and sizzle. Northeastern light is softer, more pliant and fluffed. He drew on two resources: the color sketch en plein air, where a painter registered a scene as it befell the moment; and the “composition,” a more formal structure worked out in the studio exploiting academic values that sacrificed actual observed details to large-scale unities. From Constable he learned about the quickened vitality of the plein air sketch. From Claude he learned to manage the contents of a big landscape with vaulted skies and russet clouds raked over broken passages of rocks, streams, forests, and fields. Humans shrink in the presence of anybody’s sublime, so while Durand treats pastoral types with sweet tenderness and a pious regard for community, we often have to look closely for them amidst the tricked-out actions of light above and the trees that rise imperiously above them.

The Red Man in pristine wilderness was a standard motif in Durand’s day, though everybody knew that the reality was already drifting into myth. It recalled a time when America wasn’t yet pried open to commercial expansion. The Indian Vespers positions an Indian on a tree-canopied ledge overlooking the misty Catskills at sunset. It’s a standard “noble savage” rendering (with Christianity kneaded in: Algonquin chiefs didn’t know from vespers) and demonstrates how Durand managed the contents of his pictures. Crisp twilight trips along little ridges of water that lap at the shore. The Hudson River painters loved crepuscular light, what cinematographers call “magic time,” when fading light can in minutes wash from gold to aquamarine to purple. We see similar effects in the handsome Dover Plains, Dutchess County, New York, where nebulous, sun-softened mountains and upper air play off against the crisp tactile immediacies of rocks, trees, and streams. Durand once described his exalting experience of capturing how light touches earth: “The external appearance of this our dwelling place is fraught with lessons of high and holy meaning, only surpassed by the light of Revelation.”

That “external appearance” also persuaded artists that they were present at some kind of creation, the coming into being of an ancient New World of pure possibility and discovery, however rough, unhewn, and perilous. And creation of any kind is, like a New York autumn, change in its purest, most immediate (and destabilizing) form. Washington Irving’s words about the Catskills in A Landscape Book described the pull of the region for painters like Durand who, for all their exposure to European painting, hoped to make an art as American as the new poetry Emerson was calling for, one that represented America in all its motley amplitude. (That would be Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.) “Our seasons are all poetical,” Irving wrote. “The phenomena of our heavens are full of sublimity and beauty, [such as] the sublime melancholy of our autumn, magnificent in its decay.” Durand’s woodland interiors, with birches and beeches tented over a path that recedes to a door of light, are his moodiest pictures because that wink of light comes at the end of fall’s darkened decay.

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