Landscape—Scene from "Thanatopsis," 1850
Asher B. Durand (American, 1796–1886)
Oil on canvas; 39 1/2 x 61 in. (100.3 x 154.9 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1911 (11.156)
Contrary to the popular conception of Durand and even to his own preferences as an artist of natural scenery, he painted the occasional narrative or literary landscape in the manner of his mentor Thomas Cole well into the 1850s, several years after Cole's death. This synthetic prospect evidently illustrates "the great tomb of Man" which Durand's friend, the poet William Cullen Bryant, identified as humankind's earthly domain in one of his earliest and best known works, "Thanatopsis" (Greek for "meditation on death"). The poem embraces the cycle of life and death that both raises humankind, high-born and low, from insensible matter and returns him and her to it. Barely noticeable in the foreground grove takes place an actual burial, but the wider scene of forest, field, ploughman, shepherd, mountain, and the river winding toward an infinite marine horizon betokens nature's persistent rhythms and may well hint at the deceased's eternal reward.