Next of Kin

On 12 May 2005, hurriedly and to the dismay of many art lovers, the New York Public Library sold Asher B. Durand’s famous 1849 painting Kindred Spirits in a closed-bid auction. It was bought by a Wal-Mart heiress, who’s taking it to a private museum in the Arkansas town where Wal-Mart has its headquarters. Earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, Lee Rosenbaum reported new details of the library’s decision-making and called the sale “A Betrayal of Trust.”

At Sotheby’s on 30 November 2005, the library will sell off another chunk of its artistic patrimony. (HTML note: To browse through the catalogue online, you have to register with Sotheby’s, but registration is free.) In this batch, John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson and her pet squirrel is the one I’ll miss the most.

By coincidence, a new article by H. Daniel Peck in the winter 2005 issue of American Literary History takes a close look at Durand, and Kindred Spirits in particular. (HTML note: The article isn’t freely available but most university libraries will have access to it.) Peck preserves a scholarly neutrality on the controversy surrounding the auction, but several details in his article bring home what New York has lost. He calls it “perhaps the most iconic of all American landscape paintings” and points out that it has graced the cover of the Norton Anthology of American Literature since 1979. Peck sees in the painting analogies to the “romantic empiricism” of Thoreau and an allegory of Durand’s own development as an artist, in particular, his relationship to the more celebrated painter Thomas Cole. Peck suggests that in Kindred Spirits the poet William Cullen Bryant is a surrogate for Durand:

In this picture, Cole takes a tutorial stance toward the other figure [Bryant], looking down at him from an elevated portion of the promontory and pointing out the lessons he has learned from the Book of Nature. The other figure, however, may or may not be listening. He’s not returning Cole’s instructive gaze but instead looking across the stream at a Durand-like rock formation, from which he may have learned very different lessons (p. 703).

Peck’s endnotes remind one that the New York Public Library holds Durand’s manucript papers—another reason the painting belonged at that institution. They also reveal that in 2007 the Brooklyn Museum of Art will mount the first major exhibition of Durand’s work in recent memory. Indeed, some of the most intriguing observations in Peck’s article are those relating Kindred Spirits to earlier sketches by Durand, in oil and graphite, several of which he reproduces. New York has lost Kindred Spirits just as Durand is finally coming into his own. The 2007 Brooklyn exhibit will be bittersweet.