Aesthetic Landscape: Asher Brown Durand and the Delaware Water Gap

Meghan Vonden Steinen is a junior majoring in chemistry at Syracuse University. She enjoys music, traveling, museums and spontaneous adventures. As a double minor in art history and history, she looks forwarded to a career in art conservation and museum studies.

When touring Syracuse University, high school juniors and seniors visit some of the university’s most magnificent buildings. Tucked away between the Quad and the Life Sciences Complex stands the Syracuse University Art Galleries whose print room houses hundreds of prints that date from the Baroque period to the present. Unlike the natural world outside, prints inside this room capture the world as it used to be, or was thought to be like, through landscapes, monuments, and architectural sites.

   The American tradition of depicting natural landscapes in art blossomed during the early nineteenth century, pivoting away from the European tradition of capturing nature in conjunction with architectural remains of the past exemplified by such images as William Gilpin’s aquatint of Wilton Castle in the fifth edition of Observations on the River Wye (1789). In sharp contrast to their European colleagues, American artists chose to portray idealized views of the seemingly untouched-by-man beauty of their surroundings. As part of a collaboration with his friend, the acclaimed American poet William Cullen Bryant, the artist Asher Brown Durand composed picturesque views for a publication devoted to American wildlife and scenery. Titled, American Landscapes (1830), the book featured Durand’s engraving, Delaware Water Gap (1830), an image that forms the main focal point of my essay (Craven, 53).

   Born in northwest New Jersey, artist Asher Brown Durand first worked for his father, a watchmaker and silversmith, observing the techniques of working with metals and engravings before apprenticing with an engraver at the age of eighteen (Avery). In the early stages of his career, Durand made small engravings and engravings based on other artists’ paintings. Later, he transitioned into a period of painting portraits and genre scenes, during which he became acquainted with Bryant and Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School.

   While Bryant provided the romantic prose and poetic visions of landscapes that inspired contemplation and meditation, Durand composed the emotionally stimulating images of North American landscapes that would appeal to readers and viewers. For example, Delaware Water Gap (1830) has a fallen log in the center of the composition, a representation of the end of one life and the beginning of another. Or perhaps the image is simply the representation of nature decaying and becoming one with itself. Like the woodcut illustrations in the books that fascinated Durand when he was a boy, this engraving reveals the artist’s interest in the wildlife surrounding the Delaware River and emphasizes the serpentine curves of the river itself (Craven, 52). Durand focuses specifically on the Delaware Water Gap, the quarter-mile wide, low-lying river gap that hugs the New Jersey-Pennsylvania stretch of the Delaware River. The result of land being carved out by retreating glaciers, runoff water flowing from the Appalachian to the Pocono Mountains, and abrasive minerals flowing and settling along the river path, the Delaware Water Gap that flows through Kittatinny Ridge is a formation of rough mountain ridges and low-lying forested mountain area.

   In Durand’s composition, we see, framed between two birch trees, a river between two mountains winding its way from behind the opposite shore to around the bend of the bank of the slanted fallen birch. The sky dominates the composition. Storm clouds approach from the right side of the composition, slowly threatening to cross over the river and empty their contents below. While these surging cloud formations echo the lines of the bent tree branches of the slanted birch, so do the gestures of the figures in the foreground parallel the slant of the river bank. A mother appears to call out to her son while a man gestures towards the approaching boat further upstream. A fourth individual tugs at a boat to bring it ashore.

   From the time of exploration and settlement by Europeans in the sixteenth century, the land of North America had been seen by Europeans and other countries as a land of new possibilities, new hopes, new beginnings. It sparked the imagination of foreigners and its serene landscapes impressed visitors, be it in the sandy beaches of the east coast, or the rocky trails and winding rivers of the Appalachian Mountains, or the sprawling green plains of the Midwest. Seen within this context, the roots of the birch tree in the foreground of the engraving can be read as a visual metaphor for striking roots in a new country and establishing new colonies.

   The turn of the nineteenth century brought a wave of European immigrants to the newly formed nation with thousands of these individuals moving west past the major east coast cities and settling in newly explored rural areas. While the settlers shown in Delaware Water Gap were outsiders who had to start anew and who would probably build villages, towns, and perhaps even cities in the area, by contrast, a lone Native American figure gazes into the mist of the waterfall in Durand’s earlier engraving Falls of the Sawkill (1830), a composition in which the artist draws attention to how humankind could inhabit nature without depleting its beauty and resources (Craven, 52). Indigenous peoples had been living throughout North America for centuries prior to European exploration, living off the land and its natural resources by using all of what they had, not wasting a thing.

   As the Industrial Revolution took hold in North America, Durand and other American artists became worried about the urbanization of natural landscapes. The seemingly untouched landscape in Delaware Water Gap accentuates the artist’s interest in keeping the landscape as natural as possible. Yet his composition also hints at how settlers would begin changing the landscapes of the Delaware river. Although nature shown here appears to be a sanctuary of beauty and harmony that should be left as untouched and picturesque as possible, the arriving settlers suggest that the landscape is poised on the brink of change.

   While his engraving skills revealed the hand of a master artist, by the 1830s, when he completed the Delaware Water Gap (1830), Durand looked to explore his talent in painting, specifically in portraiture, genre scenes, and landscape painting. These works, which often incorporated the Romantic motif of nature and landscapes, were not so much influenced by the works of his contemporaries in America (or even Europe) but rather by his studies of 17th- and 18th-century European paintings (Avery). His landscape paintings often focused on the rivers and grand mountains of the Hudson River Valley, but with the careful use of light to best portray a dreamlike aesthetic of the untouched wilderness.

   Like his contemporaries in America (Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Doughty, George Inness), Durand was considered to be a great American landscape painter who focused on the natural beauty that was distinctly North American. Actively involved with the Hudson River School, Cole, Durand Church, and Doughty focused on the natural and spiritual properties of the landscapes of the Hudson River Valley area.

   Today, the idea of untouched natural environments can be seen across the United States thanks in part to the creation of the United States Forest Service and National Park Service, while major natural landmarks and formations across the globe are protected by national groups and acts, such as UNESCO and the National Environmental Policy Act. Roaring rivers, colossal Redwoods, sand-duned deserts—are all protected in part thanks to the Romantics who understood the importance of nature and paid heed to their emotional connections to their natural surroundings.

   While the engraving made nearly two hundred years ago is a visual representation of a landscape that has since changed, it serves as a visual reminder of humankind’s indelible impact on natural landscapes and on the natural resources that flourished prior to human habitation. Forests that use to stand tall and mighty now lie in paper boxes, in preparation to be used for the next printing round of exams. Rivers that use to run clear with fish and birds are now polluted from factory runoffs. Clear skies that use to display a show of shooting stars, constellations, and planets are now a hazy mass thanks to the growing presence of artificial light. Resources, which had been used in moderation and consideration a few centuries ago, are now diminished because of corporate greed and lack of public awareness. Durand’s Delaware Water Gap is a testament to the beauty of nature, the purity of its rivers and freshness of crisp air, a place for retreat and contemplation.


Further Reading

  • Burns, Sarah. Painting the Dark Side: At and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America. London: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Craven, Wayne. “Asher B. Durand’s Career as an Engraver.” American Art Journal 3, no. 1(1971): 39-57.
  • Genocchio, Benjamin. “In New Britain, Hudson River School Paintings From the Met.” The New York Times, The New York Times, January 9, 2010.
  • Novak, Barbara. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting 1825-1875. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School.”, 2015.
  • Avery, Kevin J. “Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2009.

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