GEORGE HENRY DURRIE (1820 - 1863)
The central narrative of the painting consists of four men who have gathered in a barn for a cider party, with music as entertainment. A black male, seated on a box with a fiddle in his left hand, appears to have taken a respite from his performance. To the left of the fiddler, three white males are standing, with smiles on their faces, as if they have just experienced a satisfying performance. The central figure holds a pitcher of cider in one hand and a glass in the other, while the black male seated to his right extends his hand in anticipation of the drink. The animals in the painting add another layer to the narrative, as the horse, dog, and pig gaze cautiously at one another, adding a certain degree of tension to the scene. There are several details in the painting that help provide a historical context. A horseshoe hangs from the barn door on the right with prongs pointed downward as a sign of bad luck. A caricature drawing on the same door bears a close resemblance to Martin Van Buren, whose initials OK (“Old Kinderhook”) found on the opposite door, recall as well the Democratic O.K. Club, which promoted his re-election. The initials S. B. on the barn door and the white sack inside the barn allude to the two factions of the Democratic Party, the “Free Soilers” and the “Barn Burners,” who united in 1848 to nominate Van Buren.
Genre paintings are generally defined as narrative-driven scenes of everyday life painted in a realistic style. By the mid–19th century, genre scenes were common in popular print media, and artists would often have their work reproduced in journals like Harper’s Weekly or as prints by Currier and Ives. Capturing the democratic spirit of the American homeland, artists portrayed men, women and children in a variety of settings, including scenes of domestic life, political events, agricultural and industrial labor, and leisure and entertainment. In general, genre scenes reflect the dynamic changes in America at the time, including events related to the Civil War, the changing attitudes to women’s roles in society, the debates over immigration, and the shifting patterns of race relations following the manumission of slavery and the removal of Native Americans. The most important and influential genre painter of the 19th century who draws close parallels to Durrie is William Sidney Mount. Mount was not the first, but the foremost 19th - century painter who depicted the common man at work and at leisure. Mount featured whites and blacks together in the same social setting, reflecting democratic ideals at a time when racial boundaries were strictly enforced. For example, Mount, who was from a family of musicians, painted a wonderful portrait of an African American musician, titled, The Banjo Player, which conveyed the power of music as a lively and unifying force.
George Henry Durrie (1820-1863) of New Haven, Connecticut, was an artist who aspired to become a landscape painter. Not academically trained, George, and his brother John, studied art independently, receiving support from their father, who exhibited their work at his store during the day, and held public drawings during the evening. After studying with local artist, Nathaniel Joselyn, Durrie pursued a career as an itinerant portraitist, and later established himself as a landscape painter. Currier and Ives, the 19th-century publishers of popular chromolithographs, reproduced Durrie’s winter landscape paintings, which gave him wider exposure as an artist. A watershed moment in his career occurred in 1853 when his choice of subject matter changed from landscape to genre paintings, as represented in Holiday in the Country, The Cider Party. Scenes from everyday life were quite popular in the mainstream journals of the day, which may have influenced Durrie’s decision to expand his repertoire. He was not well known outside of the New Haven, Connecticut area, and did not receive much attention until the mid 20th-century, when art historians took a renewed interest in genre scenes and Regionalism, which was popular during the New Deal era.
In addition to landscape painting, genre paintings or scenes from everyday life were popular subjects in America during the mid 19th-century. The interest in everyday life coincided with a growing middle class, immigration from Europe, and an emerging industrial economy. In “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman described the everyday American as the embodiment of its deepest values:
William Sydney Mount, The Banjo Player, 1856, oil on canvas; Nathaniel Currier, Barn Burners (Cartoon), 1848. George Caleb Bingham, The County Election, 1852, oil on canvas.
“We see our land, America, her literature, esthetics, &c., as, substantially, the getting in form, or effusement and statement, of deepest basic elements and loftiest final meanings, of history and man -- and the portrayal, (under the eternal laws and conditions of beauty,) of our own physiognomy, the subjective tie and expression of the objective, as from our own combination, continuation, and points of view -- and the deposit and record of the national mentality, character, appeals, heroism, wars, and even liberties -- where these, and all, culminate in native literary and artistic formulation, to be perpetuated; and not having which native, first-class formulation, she will flounder about, and her other, however imposing, eminent greatness, prove merely a passing gleam; but truly having which, she will understand herself, live nobly, nobly contribute, emanate, and, swinging, poised safely on herself, illumin'd and illuming, become a full-form'd world, and divine Mother not only of material but spiritual worlds, in ceaseless succession through time -- the main thing being the average, the bodily, the concrete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstructures of the future are to permanently rest.”
Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
What is going on in this painting? What do you think each animal symbolizes? How would you describe race relations as they are portrayed in Durrie’s painting? How does Durrie’s depiction of race relations correspond with the historical events of the time?