ASHER BROWN DURAND 1796-1886
The Trysting Tree, 1868
Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 X 42" (69.85 x 106.68 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 979-0-117
Asher Durand spent the first two decades of his working life as an engraver. During the 1830s he turned to painting portraits, and then, encouraged by Thomas Cole, to landscapes. By the 1840s Durand was concentrating on landscapes exclusively. Working in New York City, he became a close colleague of Cole, and served as president of the National
Academy of Design. He regularly ventured into remote areas of the Catskill, Adirondack, and White Mountains to make sketches, which he used in the landscapes composed in his studio during the winter. These works evolved from staged, largely imagined idylls to ennobled portraits of specific places, compelling in breadth and detail, showing greater focus on literal transcription of nature and less reliance on conventional formula. Durand enjoyed a productive painting career that lasted through the 1860s. Although he enjoyed the respect of his fellow artists, his later years were described by his son as clouded by the American public's declining appreciation for native artists and subjects in favor of those from abroad.1 During a tribute staged by his friends in 1872, the painter John F. Weir said of him, "I think we do too little ... to show our respect for the pioneers of our pathways which have now become highways."
Among Durand's last major landscapes, The Trysting Tree was commissioned by Benjamin Hazard Field, a wealthy merchant, as a gift for his wife, Catherine M. Van Cortlandt de Peyster, on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. The painting was intended to illustrate a verse by Field to her. Inscribed on the frame, the poem accompanied the painting when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1869 under the title Moonlight:
Among the hills, the woods and clouds,
Where Hudson winds to sea, 'Twas there that Roy Van Cortlandt
First gave her heart to me. First gave her heart to me-
Amidst the cannon's roar, As I knelt with Floy Van Cortlandt
Upon the moon-lit shore.
In 1867, evidently in anticipation of making a grand gesture on his wedding anniversary, Field prevailed upon his friend Fitz-Greene Halleck to invent a second verse:
And that I am all the world to her,
It joys my breath to say, For her beating heart has told me so
For many a happy day. For many a happy day-
And her bonny lip and eye, Oh! my darling Floy Van Cortlandt,
'Tis for thee Id live and die.
Then, Field asked Durand to complete the three-way collaborative gift. It was not unusual for Durand to accept a landscape commission in which setting and various details were stipulated by the patron. He enhanced Field's memory image of thirty years by setting the courting couple, moon, clouds, and the shores of a winding I Hudson River into the type of landscape in vogue when both he and his patron were young men by reverting to the classical landscape formula of tile seventeenth-century French painter Claude Lorrain, on which he hid frequently relied thirty ' years earlier. During the 1860s, Durand occasionally created landscapes in Which such older formulas reappear.
The evidence of The Trysting Tree suggested that he did so with a specific purpose in mind. Durand applied the Clandean formula: a tree framing a shadowy foreground, a body of water in the middle. ground, low hills in the distance and golden light suffusing the sky and reflected in the water. Into this Durand injected the rougher characteristics of Hudson River scenery: bare, rugged hills, choppy dark water, unkept foliage. He then added two of his own early signatures, the gnarled tree dominating the foreground and backlit with a glowing sky.
In The Trysting Tree, Durand used nature as lie had in his early landscapes, as symbolic of the psychology of the picture's human element. The absence of a deep vista, for example, corresponds to the intimacy of the young lovers, already protected. under the spreading tree. That the orb in the sky looks more like a setting sun than. a moon may be ail allusion to the "sunset years" of the real Mr. and Mrs. Field. Durand also reflected on a bygone rural era in The
Trysting, Tree. The courtship spot, "where the Hudson winds to sea" is presumably in New York City or just
a little north, Here it is scarcely touched by humans for the Cottage nestled in woods behind the lovers barely disturbs nature's pristine state. Although neither he nor Field ever owned. such a home. both grew up in country settings, Durand in Maplewood., New Jersey, and Field in Yorktown, Westchester County. Both had long lived in lower Manhattan, and Durand had seen his once-quiet neighborhood on Amity Street become noisy, run-down, and filled with. tenements. This painting seems to confirm the often-stated thesis that the appreciation for paintings of rural subjects in New York CAY in tile 1850s and 1860s was fueled In, the nostalgia of businessmen there for lives they once knew. If The Trysting Tree is an example, it suggests that escape to an idyllic setting and nostalgia for one's rural, youth. represented much the same thing.