Currier and Ives artist featured Bethany, Hamden landscapes

BETHANY - The wooded hills and steep ridges of Bethany and Hamden and scenes of early 19th century country life, especially in wintertime, are forever preserved in the nostalgic paintings of George Henry Durrie.

The 10 lithographs of his work published by famous printmakers Currier and Ives, though only a fraction of his work, proved immensely popular over the years and spread his reputation. Today his work commands high prices on the art market and is represented in museum collections.

Durrie, who was born in New Haven in 1820 and died there 43 years later, actually began his career as an itinerant portrait painter, following study with leading New Haven artist Nathaniel Jocelyn. Durrie had a New Haven studio but also traveled to other towns to paint portraits and sometimes homes. On a few occasions he went as far as New Jersey and Virginia.

Durrie began sketching at 17, gravitating into the landscape painting that made his reputation in the 1840s. A religious man who opposed working on the Sabbath, he often took long walks into the countryside that day, roaming to East Rock Park, Sleeping Giant and the West Rock ridge, sketching as he went for future reference in his studio.

Few of the artist's landscapes, farmhouses and barns can be pinpointed because he generally combined and blended different features and details into compositions of his own. But most of the scenes, and especially the hills, are unmistakably of the area that he knew the best.

Probably the most famous is Durrie's "Home to Thanksgiving," which has appeared repeatedly on calendars, cards and framed prints since its printing by Currier and Ives.

Another painting, "Going to Church," was chosen by President Gerald Ford for the First Family's 1976 Christmas card. The original painting was donated to the White House by a New Jersey senator during the Kennedy administration.

It depicts a steepled white church with outbuildings, including a carriage shed, and is believed to have been inspired by Christ Episcopal Church in Bethany, even though Durrie took his usual liberty with details. Durrie's church has some differences from the handsome 1810 building, but the rectory still lies to one side and the carriage shed is just across the road.

Events in Durrie's life suggest it is, indeed, the Bethany church because he knew it well. He painted portraits in town (including a collateral ancestor of late First Selectman Gordon Carrington), boarding in town while completing commissions, as was the fashion. He worshipped in Christ Church, sang in its choir on occasion and married the choirmaster's daughter, Sarah Perkins, a teacher, in it in 1841.

Durrie and his wife had three children. The couple are buried in Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.

Durrie painted a number of seasonal scenes showing activities such as scything, haying and cider pressing, but he concentrated on so many winter landscapes of country scenes that he became known as "The Snowman," according to Bethany resident George MacDiarmid, a descendent of Durrie's wife.

It is these paintings in particular on which much of Durrie's reputation as an early American landscape artist rests. They are naturalistic renderings, in considerable detail, of the countryside in the depths of winter: snow-roofed farmhouses and fields, tall haystacks mantled in snow, cows milling in a snowy yard and guests arriving or departing a country inn by horse-drawn sleigh.

The picture titles, many in Durrie's "Winter in the Country" series, tell the themes: "Getting Wood" by ox-drawn sled, "Getting Ice" from a pond, "Chopping Wood" and "The Old Grist Mill" encrusted in ice. In "January Sunset," with its pale winter sky, snow-drifted fields and farmhouse snuggled into a tree clump, the cold is palpable and penetrating to the viewer.

And almost always, in the background, are the distinctive steep hills of Bethany and Hamden that residents of those towns know so well.

Some of Durrie's most striking paintings record actual scenes in his home town, notably its famous bluffs, East Rock and West Rock, as well as the historic Judges Cave on the latter ridge.

Another feature of the artist's paintings - trees - is an integral part of many. Snarled and twisted oaks, in particular, with their multiple leafless and straggly branches frame most scenes, dramatically enhancing the wintry settings.

Durrie's nostalgic New England country landscapes with their homey details appealed to people's sentiments as Americans were beginning to appreciate their country's beauty. His lithographs and those of contemporaries filled a need. They were the only images, other than religious ones, available in the early 19th century, according to Alvin Eisenman, a Bethany resident and emeritus graphic arts chairman at Yale's School of Art. "Civilized houses were supposed to have some pictures on the walls," he said.

Durrie's must have brought considerable pleasure to many - and still do.