Asher Brown Durand, Kindred Spirits (1849). Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 91.4 cm. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas
This painting really sums up the themes of my current research project on American art and literature. Its title comes from an English poet, John Keats. The two men in the painting are an artist, Thomas Cole, and a writer, William Cullen Bryant. They are drawn together by their shared love of the wilderness - and its trees. The artists and writers I've chosen to research - Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Henry David Thoreau, William James Stillman and Albert Bierstadt - loved trees and referred to their 'spirits'. It was not uncommon, too, for writers to use phrases like 'the spirit of the wilderness'. The consciousness of native American culture - or an avoidance of it - resonates through much of their artistic and literary production. There are also many fascinating connections between American and English culture in the period. So the phrase 'kindred spirits' has multiple different layers of meaning. I guess that I also feel myself a kindred spirit to those men - though theirs is very much a man's world of settlers and explorers, in which women play a subordinate role. I love reading about their exploits in the woods - sleeping in makeshift shelters on beds made of balsam fir, spending weeks at a time drawing trees until the snow drives them back to the town. I probably wouldn't last five minutes in the harsh conditions in which they worked! But I do admire them for it. And I think there is great beauty and interest in the products of their labours.
From c. 2010-2017, I was engaged in research for a book on trees in British art, asking questions, such as: how does the interest in trees develop, how do ideas change over the 18th and 19th centuries? I looked at drawing manuals, illustrated books on trees, oil paintings, watercolours and prints, landscape gardening, poetry, artists' writings. The artists I found most important and/or interesting included the following: Paul Sandby, Thomas Hearne, John Constable, Samuel Palmer, James Ward, John Martin, Edward Lear, Francis Danby, Jacob George Strutt and Henry William Burgess.