John Durand


(active 1765–1782)
was one of the preeminent colonial painters of wealthy New York, Virginia, and Connecticut families during the second half of the eighteenth century. Although little biographical information is available about the artist, his activity can be traced from 1765, when he is first documented as working in Virginia, to 1782, when his namelast appears on a tax list for Dinwiddie County in Virginia.Durand was working in New York City in 1766, when he painted portraits of the six children of merchant James Beekman. The portraits strongly suggest thatDurand was already a proficient artist by the time he earned this commission, although the nature of his training is not clear. In his account book, Beekman refers to theartist as “Monsieur Duran.” This and similar references in later sources have led to speculation that the artist was either of French ancestry or perhaps was American- born to French Huguenot parents. Durand tended toward a linear and decorative approach to painting, with heavy outlining and flat areas of color. The soft rocococolors, as well as the profusion of flowers and other embellishments, may suggest some training as a decorative painter, a notion supported by Durand’s advertisementin the (Williamsburg)
Virginia Gazette,
on June 21, 1770, that states his willingness to “paint, gild, and varnish wheel carriages; and put coats of arms, or ciphers, uponthem, in a neater and more lasting manner than was ever done in this country.”Durand’s most ambitious canvas, and the only known group portrait in his oeuvre, was completed in 1768. Depicting the four children of Garret Rapalje, a NewYork City importer, the figures are arranged in a naturalistic composition, one in front of the other, with the oldest son in the foreground. Each of the four figuresexemplifies a pose or convention that Durand had already relied upon in his individual portrayals of the six Beekmans: hand on hip or hand in vest for each of the boys,a flower held to the bosom of the girl, and a self-conscious disposition of fingers, often with one or two lifted and separated from the rest. That same year Durand alsoadvertised in
The NewYork Gazette
or the
Weekly Post-Boy
that he had “from infancy endeavored to qualify himself in the Art of historical Painting.” As no paintingsof historical subjects by Durand are known, however, he appears to have been unsuccessful in this aspiration.Between 1768 and 1770, Durand worked primarily in Connecticut and New York, with at least one commission in Virginia, in 1769. These early portraits showlittle modeling but a freshness and naturalism that the artist rarely achieved in most of the Virginia portraits, which Durand’s nephew, Robert Sully, characterized as “dryand hard.” A new attempt at modeling appears in the portraits of the early 1770s, when he was probably traveling through New York on his way back to Connecticutand may have become acquainted with the work of John Singleton Copley (1738–1815).In 1772, a signed and dated portrait of Benjamin Douglas places Durand back in Connecticut. His movements are not known thereafter until he reappears in Virginiain 1775 with the portraits of
Mr. and Mrs. Gary Briggs
of Dinwiddie County. These continue to show the influence of Copley, in that the figures emerge dramatically from a dark background. After 1775 Durand may have remained in Virginia; his last known painting marks a return to the “hard and drystyle,” and is dated 1781.
See also
Painting, American Folk
Chotner, Deborah et al.
American Naïve Paintings: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue.
Washington, D.C., 1992.Kelly, Franklin W. “The Portraits of John Durand.”
The Magazine Antiques,
vol. 122, no. 5 (November 1982): 1080–1087.Weekley, Carolyn J. “Artists Working in the South, 1720–1820.”
The Magazine Antiques,
vol. 110, no. 5 (November 1976): 1046–1087.