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A Stroke of Genius
Asher B. Durand paints Maplewood onto the cultural map
by Raymond Leone

Cooperstown, NY, Springfield, MA, Cleveland, OH and Maplewood, NJ all have something in common and something to be very proud of: their respective halls of fame.

Every state, city and town in America likes to boast, with pride, ofits history. And Maplewood is no exception. One place in town where that sense of pride permeates from the walls is in the main meeting room of Town Hall. The series of murals by Stephen Juharos, which tower over the well-worn benches, depicts our town's beginnings with a rare combination of artistic grace and historical chronology. When viewing these timeless works, you begin to understand the importance of the pioneers who, in essence, put Maplewood on the map.

One of those murals shows a young man alone at an easel looking over a glorious landscape: a mural within a mural, if you will. His name is Durand. Who is this young lad with the last name that we are all so familiar with! Why is he so important!

Asher Brown Durand was born in 1796 in a farmhouse in Jefferson Village, which is now known as Maplewood. His father was a watchmaker and silversmith, and young Asher spent his summers working in his dad's workshop, where he learned several crafts, including jewelry making and engraving.

In 1812, young Asher was sent to apprentice with the prominent New Jersey engraver Peter Maverick in Newark. His natural talent immediately became obvious to Maverick and, by 1817, they formed a partnership with Durand, opening a branch of the firm in New York City. The partnership bitterly dissolved when Durand was solely commissioned by John Trumbull to engrave his now famous painting The Declaration oflndependence. This was one of the most prominent works of its time - the engraving would eventually be featured on the two-dollar bill - and established Durand as one of the day's leading engravers.

After the tumultuous parting with Maverick, he entered into a partnership with his brother Cyrus and they quickly gained a reputation for excellence. In the 1820s the Durands owned a series of printmaking firms and, with their success, Asher began to become active in New York's cultural circles. It was at this time that he took his first steps as a painter. In 1825, he created his first original composition - a female nude in a landscape setting.

As his involvement grew within the art community, he became a leading figure in the creation of the National Academy of Design in New York. The first institution of its kind, the Academy became a prominent place for young artists to gather and hone their craft. To this day, it continues to be one of the leading art institutes in the United States.

Durand began to paint more and more, doing a few landscapes but concentrating mostly on portraits of distinguished men, including James Madison and John Quincy Adams. This craft paid the bills and, while Durand became an expert, his passions laid elsewhere. In 1837, while on a sketching expedition to the Adirondacks with his close friend Thomas Cole, Durand decided to concentrate exclusively on landscape painting. Cole, one of the premier American artists of the day, became Durand's mentor, whose influence would become evident throughout the rest of his career.

After a Two-year trip to Europe to study his craft, Durand returned and opened his own studio in New York City. He immediately resumed his practice of making summer sketching tours to the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley, which produced hundreds of drawings and oil sketches. With each journey, he increasingly came to believe that the direct study of nature should be the primary inspiration for American artists and that they should spend time in nature if they are going to reproduce it.

Durand, along with Cole, Frederic E. Church, T Worthington Whittredge and the artists who shared the philosophy of "becoming one with nature," became known as the Hudson River School artists - not a school in the sense of an institution, but a school ofthought. It was the same theory found in the nature poetry of Durand's close friend William Cullen Bryant. Admired for their highly realistic depictions of nature and their exquisitely rendered effects of light and atmosphere, these artists have made a significant mark in American art history, while the Hudson River School theory is still recognized today for its innovation and professionalism.

In April 1869, Durand moved from New York to a new house and studio builton the family property in Maplewood, where he would remain until his death in 1886. The Durand house has since been razed and the original property rebuilt upon.

Yes, Durand Road is named after the Durand family and the location of the original Durand house, on the corner of Ridgewood Road and Durand Road, is duly marked with an artist's palette-shaped plaque set into a modest stone monument. Asher Durand never lived in the Durand/Hedden house, but members of the Durand family did ultimately reside there, including his brother Henry.

So where does Asher B. Durand rank in Maplewood today! According to Rowland Bennett, the director of the Maplewood Memorial Library, he is perhaps Maplewood's most famous son. "Asher Durand has been Maplewood's leading contribution to American culture," says Bennett. The library houses some of Durand's engravings, including The Declaration of lndependence and one original painting. There are also several reproductions of some of his famous landscape scenes.

The Durand/Hedden house is also home to some of Durand's original works, including a portrait of his brother Cyrus. Joseph Veach Noble, a Maplewood resident for 52 years and one-time vice-director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was in charge of the creation of the murals in Town Hall. "Durand was very prolific," says Noble, "and one of the first to concentrate on the unspoiled beauty of nature. When you look at a Durand painting, you experience nature. He set a precedent for those to come."

Beyond Maplewood, does anyone care about Asher B. Durand! According to Call Stavitsky, chief curator of the Montclair Art Museum, "Asher Durand is one of the leading figures of the major 19th century American painters. He was one of the best at what he did." Joseph Jacobs, the curator of American art at the Newark Museum, states that Durand "certainly is considered one of the most important figures from the Hudson River School and they set a new standard for excellence." Locally, the Newark Museum, the Montclair Art Museum and the Art Museum at Princeton University have Durand's work in their collections. In fact, virtually all major museums in the country have paintings by Asher B. Durand on exhibit, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

So the next time you are driving up Durand Road toward South Mountain Reservation and looking at the brilliant scenery that nature provides, think about one of our founding brothers and be proud. And the next time you visit an art museum, don't forget to head to the American wing and look for a familiar name, Durand.

Raymond Leone is also a painter. His most recent works include his kitchen, his dining room, his bathroom and his backporch.

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