Among American painters of the late nineteenth century, Asher B. Durand created particularly poetic compositions that express a unique vision of the American landscape. Painting serene works, such as Mountain Stream, Durand, along with his friend and fellow-painter Thomas Cole, formed what would become a national school of landscape painting, the Hudson River School. Kaaterskill Clove, a dramatically deep valley in upstate New York, became a favorite subject for both artists, and the present work Mountain Stream is a powerful example from this oeuvre.
As soon as Durand began exhibiting his paintings, American critics acknowledged the quality of the artist’s compositions and his place in the development of a national style. For example, in 1847 a critic for the New York Evening Post compared Cole and Durand, writing, “It is now generally conceded, we believe, that Cole and Durand are the two most prominent landscape painters in this country. They are indeed artists of superior ability, and will undoubtedly hereafter be looked upon as the founders of two American schools. Each one is distinguished for peculiar excellencies…Durand paints the better study from nature so far as individuality is concerned, but Cole produces with greater truth the uncommon effects observable in nature…Cole has a passion for the wild and tempestuous; Durand is a lover of the cultivated country when glowing in mellow sunlight.” (as quoted in L.S. Ferber, Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2007, p. 161)
Epitomizing the features for which Durand's work was praised, Mountain Stream was exhibited at the National Academy in 1849, along with his major work Kindred Spirits (1849, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas), which features Thomas Cole and William Bryant at Kaaterskill Clove. Linda Ferber writes, “Durand’s 1848 summer campaign included expeditions to the Adirondacks and Vermont. He closed the season at the Catskill Mountain House and in the Kaaterskill Clove, gathering sketches for the [Jonathan] Sturges commission [of Kindred Spirits]. In several major wilderness landscapes of the next few years, Durand would focus on the Clove, the dramatic gorge long associated with the work of Cole. Two of his most important interpretations were exhibited at the NAD annual of 1849. The rugged foreground of Mountain Stream is a rocky streambed, filled with boulders, which meanders down into the Clove between wooded mountainsides, with the Catskill range rising in the background.” (Kindred Spirits: Asher B. Durand and the American Landscape, p. 159)
Even when shown alongside the masterwork Kindred Spirits, Mountain Stream inspired favorable reviews upon its first exhibition. A critic wrote of the present work, “Never did Durand produce a better picture—one so full of tenderness and truth. See over the waving woods the vapory effect of light; catch the sparkling brook, tumbling among rocks; hide yourself, lest you disturb that listening stag; tread lightly over the stones, for fear that you may ruffle the limpid surface of the mountain-stream; lie prostrate on one of those rocks, and gaze through the interlacing branches of those forest-kings; and, lulled by the rippling flow of water, sleep and dream of a sylvan paradise, you are in one now.” (“National Academy Review,” The Knickerbocker, New York, vol. XXXIII, May 5, 1849, p. 470) Another reviewer of the 1849 exhibit commented, “The ‘Mountain Stream,’ (No. 160) is of another character—a wild, desolate scene, very forcibly painted and thoroughly American in its features.” (Bulletin of the American Art-Union, May 1849, p. 14)
Mountain Stream exemplifies Durand’s unique approach toward landscape painting, which concentrates on a keen observation of geologic details. The composition is illuminated with a subtle sunlight that envelops the deer approaching the stream and emphasizes the contrast of the deeply shadowed hillsides. Mountain Stream stands as one of Durand’s most poignant depictions of Kaaterskill Clove, a location that became profoundly significant in not only Durand’s work, but to the entire Hudson River School of painters.