George Henry Durrie

(5 June 1820 - 15 October 1863)

George Henry Durrie was a nineteenth century artist who developed a unique expression for the depiction of winter farmyards and landscapes. Durrie produced around 300 paintings over the course of his career. The earliest of these works were portraits however, by the early 1850s, Durrie had begun to focus increasingly on painting rural genre scenes and winter landscapes of New England. These winter scenes are considered his finest achievements.

Most of what is known about Durrie’s painting career has been learnt through his account books (1839-1852) and from a diary he kept from January 1, 1845 to July 1, 1846. The account books document Durrie’s commissions, sales, and exhibitions, while Durrie’s brief diary offers insight into his personal affairs and interests.

Durrie was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1820. His father was an emigrant from England and his mother was a descendant of Governor William Bradford, a Mayflower pilgrim who became a leader of the Separatist settlers in Plymouth Colony.

In 1839, Durrie and his older brother John began taking painting lessons from Nathaniel Jocelyn, a renowned New Haven portraitist and Honorary Member of the National Academy of Design. Durrie studied with Jocelyn for two years. During these formative years Durrie’s account books indicate he was already taking commissions to paint portraits.

Much of Durrie’s early career was spent as an itinerant painter, traveling over the countryside in search of portrait commissions in smaller towns and rural areas. In 1839, Durrie traveled to Hartford and Bethany, Connecticut, and then from 1840 to 1841, he worked in Naugatuck and Meriden, Connecticut, and in Freehold and Keyport, New Jersey.

Throughout his life Durrie had a strong interest in the church and its music. He played violin and bass viol, and often sung in church choirs. His diary reveals it was not unusual for Durrie to attend church three or four times each Sunday. While painting in Bethany, Durrie attended rehearsals for the Episcopal Choir where he met Sarah A. Perkins. Durrie and Perkin married on September 14th, 1841. The couple had a son, George, in 1842.

After getting married, Durrie and his wife lived briefly in Monmouth County, New Jersey, before settling in New Haven. Under the patronage of Judge James S. Lawrence, Durrie painted many portraits throughout the year of 1842. His account book shows at this time his portraits were between five to fifteen dollars each. To supplement his income, Durrie did other painting jobs such as altering portraits, varnishing, and even painting decorative motifs on window shutters.

Durrie first showed his works in public exhibitions in 1843. His exhibited a portrait at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and two portraits at the New Haven Horticultural Society. The following year Durrie exhibited five more works at the State House in New Haven. One of these works was his first recorded winter scene. Durrie sent another winter landscape, The Sleighing Party, to the National Academy in 1845.

In January 1845, Durrie left his wife and child to travel to Claverack and Hudson in New York. Later in the year he moved to Petersburg, Virginia where he remained for six months painting portraits. Durrie’s second son, Benjamin, was born in 1847. His only daughter, Mary, was born in 1852.

By the 1850s, Durrie’s local reputation had started to grow and he was established enough to give up his itinerant lifestyle, setting up a permanent studio at 5 Marble Block in New Haven. In 1853, Durrie had a house built on Temple Street where he lived with his family for the rest of his life. During this time Durrie began to specialize more in rural landscapes, as demonstrated by a public sale of his works in 1854. An advertisement in the New Haven Daily Register reads: “Having engaged for a few months past in painting a number of choice Winter Scenes, [G. H. Durrie] would offer them at public sale to the admirers of the fine arts… It is needless to add that no collection of pictures is complete without one or more Winter Scenes.”1 Durrie exhibited two more winter scenes at the National Academy in 1857.

Durrie’s landscapes are characterized by pale yet bright colors and by the repeated use of certain motifs, such as an isolated farmhouse, a road running diagonally through the composition, and a hill in the distance. They are appreciated for their freshness and originality, and are quite distinct from the predominately summer scenes produced by Durrie’s contemporaries in the Hudson River School.

In 1861 the printmaking firm Currier & Ives further popularized Durrie’s work through publishing two lithographs of his winter landscapes, New England Winter Scene (1858) and the Farmyard in Winter (untraced). Two more of Durrie’s works were published in 1863 and a further six after his death. The last print to be published was Home to Thanksgiving (unknown) in 1867. It depicts a young man, having returned home by sled, being greeted by his family on the front porch of their home. It has become one of the most Durrie’s most iconic images.

Durrie had a modest reputation during his lifetime, however after his death the Currier and Ives prints ensured Durrie’s works were kept in the pubic eye. Since the 1930s, Durrie has been increasingly recognized for his paintings following posthumous recognition in books, articles, and numerous one-man exhibitions. Most of his paintings remain in private collections however important examples can be viewed in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the New York Historical Society, and the Fine Arts Museum in Boston.

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Additional Sources:
Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists

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