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Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits

Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits, 1849, oil on canvas, 111.8 x 91.4 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) . A conversation with Dr. Mindy Besaw, Curator, American Art and Director of Fellowships and Research, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Narrator 1] We're at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, looking at one of the most famous, one of the most recognized paintings in American history. This is by Asher B. Durand. It's called Kindred Spirits. - [Narrator 2] The figures are William Cullen Bryant, the poet, and with him is Thomas Cole. William Cullen Bryant was asked to give the speech in the memorial service for Cole after he had passed. - [Narrator 1] These men were good friends, and in fact, Jonathan Sturges, the man who commissioned this portrait, was also quite close to both of them. So this is a very private painting. - [Narrator 2] There are lots of things that remind us of the importance of the Catskills and there are lots of things that we could unpack for this canonical story of American art. So one of those is Thomas Cole as the so-called founder of the American School of Painting. - [Narrator 1] So let's unpack this term, Hudson River School, for a moment. Thomas Cole famously went up the Hudson River, north of New York City, to this ancient mountain range, an area that was still very rural and began to paint it often with a deep spirituality embedded in the landscape. And this interest in finding this rugged terrain was a direct consequence of the fact that New York City was growing at an enormous pace. By the time that this is painted by the end of Cole's life, in 1849, New York City had become the primary city on the east coast of the United States. - [Narrator 2] For Cole, he very directly says, "the wilderness is that place to speak to God," but Durand instead he sees nature as a studio for the artists. But there is a difference in the way Durand thinks about it than Cole. - [Narrator 1] For most of Durand's painting career, he had been using a much more traditional method borrowed from the European, which is to sketch outside and then to go back to the studio and to create invented compositions. But here we're seeing a distinct change and that may be in part a kind of homage to Cole but also responding to a new interest in realism, a fidelity to the geology of these rocks, to the specificity of this incredible bough and the foliage as it arks across the top of this painting. - [Narrator 2] There's something so delightful about how the sun reflects on the shoulders of the men, and then every little leaf on the tree in the foreground, and then it goes back into that wonderful atmospheric perspective and those shades of blue. And some of the delightful details in this is the fern and the foreground, the moss on the rock. Look at the chipping away the bark on the trees. All of those details convince the viewer that they're sanding in this gorge with these men. But we have to remember that the artists are translating landscape for the viewer. The blasted tree in the foreground, that's a direct reference to Cole and it's also his life cut short. Cole died suddenly. He was still a young man. - [Narrator 1] And yet the men are standing on this ancient rock that is covered with moss and it speaks to a kind of agelessness. And so there is this idea of the eternity of nature as a kind of solace for the loss of this man. The title, Kindred Spirits, references a phrase in a poem by the English romantic poet, John Keats' titled, "O Solitude". - [Narrator 2] "In my soul's pleasure; and it sure must be almost the highest bliss of human-kind, when to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee." - [Narrator 1] The very beginning of the poem, there is a reference to this historical moment where Keats is saying, "If I must be alone, it shouldn't be among the murky buildings of the city, and instead climb with me the steep nature's observatory", that is going out into the wilderness in a place that I think for all of these men, inherently more spiritual. It is such a lovely idea to commission a painting as a memory of a friend, and that a painting like this that captures such an intimate relationship can become such a public statement about American art. - [Narrator 2] For many of our visitors who maybe haven't visited the Catskills, there's something familiar about this because it looks a lot like the Ozarks. Perhaps that's also the success of the painting, is that it can overlay and feel specific to many different viewers at many different times and in many different places. (soft piano music)