John Durand

John Durand’s birth and death dates are unknown, and only a few of his portraits are signed and dated. The sketchy chronology of his life is based on these few signed works, as well as on account book entries and information about his sitters. Scholars place his first activity in Virginia in 1765, but by 1766 Durand was in New York City. In that year his name appears in the account book of James Beekman of New York in an entry that records payment to “Monsieur Duran” for the portraits of Beekman’s six children. Nothing is known of Durand’s background or artistic training, but this reference to his name in French, the rococo colors in his portraits, and his ambition to make history paintings have led some scholars to believe he was born or trained in France. Nonetheless, his two-dimensional, linear technique, use of bright colors, and attention to detail are clearly part of the American tradition. At about the same time that he painted the Beekmans, the artist also received portrait commissions from the prominent Ray family of New York, and, in 1768, from Garret Rapalje, a wealthy New York merchant; Durand’s portrait The Rapalje Children is certainly his most ambitious work.

Also about 1768, Durand traveled to New Haven, where he painted Sarah Whitehead Hubbard. It is difficult to establish Durand’s movements after this time, when he departed from New York as one of the city’s most successful painters. A signed and dated Virginia portrait indicates his return to that state in 1769. Of Durand’s work in Virginia the artist’s nephew Robert Sully recalled, “He painted an immense number of portraits in Virginia; his works are hard and dry, but appear to have been strong likenesses, with less vulgarity of style than artists of his calibre generally possess.” Durand returned to a “hard and dry” style in his later years. Like most painters of his time, he was willing to “paint, gild, and varnish wheel carriages; and put coats of arms, or ciphers upon them,” as he advertised in The Virginia Gazette of 21 June 1770. Durand also aspired to be a history painter, but as no known paintings of this genre exist by his hand, perhaps, like other artists of the time, he was disappointed by a lack of American patronage for this type of painting.

Durand’s return to Connecticut is confirmed by a portrait of Benjamin Douglas, signed and dated 1772. By 1775, however, he was again seeking commissions in Virginia, evidenced by his signed and dated portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Gray Briggs of Dinwiddie County, Virginia. The artist may have remained there, as the only further record of his name in any state appears on a 1782 tax list for Dinwiddie County, Virginia.

SOURCE: National Gallery of Art