Tag Archives: George Henry Durrie

#FineArtFriday: Hunter in Winter Wood, George Henry Durrie

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 is one of my favorite images of 19th century Americana. The snow on the bare trees and rocky outcroppings gives the impression of weight, yet it is only a light dusting. The way the light shines golden on the snow—this is how a snowy winter looked in the woods surrounding the rural lake where I grew up. The grandeur of the view shows the 19th century vision of a wide, boundless country. Anything is possible in a country where the land and resources are as limitless as shown in this painting.

Hunter in Winter Wood was painted near the end of Durrie’s life. His most famous works were made into prints by Currier and Ives after his death at the age of 43.

About the Artist, quoted from the National Gallery of Art:

Born in New Haven in 1820, the son of a Connecticut stationer, George Henry Durrie remained in that city virtually his entire life. Married to a choirmaster’s daughter, Sarah Perkins, in 1841, he immersed himself in the quiet pursuits of family and church. While he never achieved the fame of the most renowned nineteenth century American landscape painters, he appears to have had a fulfilling, productive career. His letters show that he never felt the need to move beyond his community, although he once briefly took a studio in New York and exhibited there regularly at the National Academy of Design.

Almost all of his compositions are relatively small in scale, few exceeding 18 x 24 inches, and his views are quiet and intimate. He knew and admired the works of Thomas Cole, and may have tried to emulate certain aspects of Cole’s style, yet he eschewed the Hudson River School’s compositional complexity and expansiveness. Because his paintings combined extensive genre elements with landscape they had a story-telling content that made them pleasant, accessible images to the average viewer.

The lithographic firm of Currier & Ives successfully reproduced ten of Durrie’s scenes and these, in turn, became popular calendar illustrations in the twentieth century. As a result, Durrie’s depictions of rural life in the mid-nineteenth century are now among the most familiar images in all of American art. As Martha Hutson has noted, however, these printed pictures do not convey the keen sensitivity to and understanding of conditions of atmosphere and light that are so pronounced in Durrie’s paintings.

From Wikipedia:

In his teens the self-taught artist painted portraits in the New Haven area. In 1839 he received artistic instruction from Nathaniel Jocelyn, a local engraver and portrait painter. After 1842 he settled in New Haven, but made painting trips to New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. Around 1850, he began painting genre scenes of rural life, as well as the winter landscapes that became popular when Currier and Ives published them as lithographs. Four prints were published between 1860 and the artist’s death in New Haven in 1863; six additional prints were issued posthumously. The painter Jeanette Shepperd Harrison Loop studied with him.


Credits and Attributions:

Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors, “George Henry Durrie,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=George_Henry_Durrie&oldid=861433469 (accessed November 23, 2018).

National Gallery of Art contributors, “George Henry Durrie,” biography, © 2018 National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.6397.html

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#FineArtFriday: Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut, by George Henry Durrie

I frequently find myself perusing the vaults at Wikimedia Commons, looking for clues about how people lived in times past. Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut, by George Henry Durrie is an intriguing window into the winter of 1858, a surprisingly intimate view of life in America just before the Civil War.

Durrie had a modest reputation during his lifetime, an indie struggling unsuccessfully to market his works. After his death, the American printmaking firm, Currier and Ives, ensured his works were kept in the public eye.

The grandeur of the sky is reminiscent of Constable’s work, and the painting, overall, is both bold and comforting. Under a large sky, we find a small farm. It’s a simple pastoral scene, a moment painted during a winter long passed into memory. It’s pleasant, almost boring scene in its common hominess. When you look at the larger picture, you may ask, “How is this intimate? The landscape and the sky provide the drama, while the people are completely overshadowed by the scenery.”

But there is another, deeper story, one that is overshadowed by the majestic landscape and threatening winter skies, and Durrie included these people for a reason.

In Connecticut in 1858 things were not as simple and bucolic as the wide view of this image portrays.

Quote from Matthew Warshauer in his article for Connecticut History:

The state descended into chaos at the start of the war, splitting into warring Republican and Democratic factions that sometimes faced off violently.  Before the Southern states even seceded, the two parties faced off in the 1860 gubernatorial election, a contest that would decide the level of the state’s involvement once the war began.

Artists, then and now, frequently deal in allegory and misdirection. Then, as now, they were pressured to portray an acceptable vision life as it should be. They had to sell their work to live, so they did do that, but they still painted what they saw, inserting the truth into each painting. The story that Durrie hid within this painting can be found by examining the painting in detail. I have enlarged the important section for you.

A sled, drawn by a single horse and driven by a woman, has pulled up beside the gate. A man has emerged and is talking to her. In the doorway of the farmhouse, a woman and girl stand, watching the scene at the gate.

We can imagine that some drama exists in their relationships, beginning with the way the man is standing there, not inviting the woman in. She obviously doesn’t expect to be invited in by him but has come anyway.

The man speaks to the traveler, but his gaze is not focused on the woman who has traveled through the snow, bringing a large sack filled with… what? Presents? Food-gifts? Instead, he looks away, focusing on the fencepost. Is the visitor an unwelcome mother-in-law, or is she, perhaps, a travelling merchant and he is negotiating with her?

Did she purchase something? Perhaps they’re merely chatting and he just happens to be looking away.

The sky can be a clue to the deeper story, too. Dark clouds take up fully half of the scene, dwarfing the homestead. Storms threaten the peace and prosperity of this farm, and barren trees flourish. It’s 1858 and the country is divided politically and ideologically, and the threat of a civil war looms.

The final subliminal clue is in the title: Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut. The artist names the picture after the larger community, a town that doesn’t appear at all in the painting, instead of offering the farm’s name. Thus, the scene. the approaching storm threatening the peaceful farm, is an allegory depicting the mood of the larger community.

Does this small detail hidden in the larger picture depict a travelling merchant, a customer, or a disliked mother-in-law bringing gifts despite her son-in-law’s aversion? Or is there something deeper here? Nothing breaks up families or divides communities as surely as strongly held opposing opinions, and we were deeply divided in those turbulent times.

The story is there, and the world in which it is set is all prepared for you. George Henry Durrie painted it, and if you are looking for a deep story that echoes our modern political state of affairs, here it is.

Or, it could simply be a passing stranger, asking for directions on a winter’s day.

When you examine the art of the past closely and look for allegories, you may find a large story hidden within the the image.  It’s up to you to interpret it and then write it.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Henry Durrie – Winter Scene in New Haven, Connecticut – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Henry_Durrie_-_Winter_Scene_in_New_Haven,_Connecticut_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=249454341  (accessed December 14, 2017).

The Complicated Realities of Connecticut and the Civil War, by Matthew Warshauer, Ph.D., Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University. Copyright © Connecticut Humanities. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 License. (accessed December 14, 2017)

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