Ten days after his 47th birthday, Thomas Cole—America’s first important landscape painter—died of pneumonia on February 11, 1848. At the time of his death, he was the acknowledged leader of the loosely knit group of American landscape painters that would become known as the Hudson River School.
In New York, he was honored with a memorial exhibition of his works and a service highlighted by a eulogy delivered by William Cullen Bryant, one of Cole's closest friends and a successful American nature poet. Among the tributes Bryant offered, one was especially prescient: “I say within myself, this man will be reverenced in future years as a great master in art.”
In appreciation of Bryant’s role in celebrating Cole’s memory and in recognition of the friendship between the poet and the painter, the New York collector Jonathan Sturges commissioned Asher B. Durand to paint a work that would depict Cole and Bryant as “kindred spirits.” Durand, several years older than Cole and a successful engraver, had been inspired by Cole in the 1830s to take up landscape painting and was soon a leading practitioner in his own right.
Sturges’ request that the two men be shown as kindred spirits was inspired by the words of English poet John Keats, whose Sonnet to Solitude celebrates the ameliorative aspects of nature and concludes:
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and sure it must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.
Durand’s Kindred Spirits was completed in 1849 and delivered as a gift to Bryant. It shows the poet and Cole standing on a ledge in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where both had been inspired to create some of their finest works. Although executed in the detailed and realistic style that Durand championed for American landscape painting, its composition brings together several sites—including the Clove of the Catskills and Kaaterskill Falls—that could not be seen from a single vantage point. As such, it was intended as an idealized tribute to American nature and to the two men whose art had extolled its special beauties.
|Kindred Spirits | 1849|
Asher B. Durand
Oil on Canvas | 44 in. x 36 in.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington