Since artists were created by God and generously endowed by him with special gifts, the powers of revelation and creation extended to them too. How to exercise these divine rights was the subject of much discussion. Asher B. Durand cautioned the young artist “not to transcribe whole pages [of nature] indiscriminately ‘verbatim ad literature’; but such texts as most clearly and simply declare her great truths, and then he cannot transcribe with too much care and faithfulness.” He suggested starting with a humble naturalism, for “the humblest scenes of your successful labors will become hallowed ground to which, in memory at least, you will make many a joyous pilgrimage, and, like Rousseau, in the fullness of your emotions, kiss the very earth that bore the print of your oft-repeated footsteps.” As is clear from this passage, Durand’s famous “Letters on Landscape Painting” (1855) frequently adopt the tone of a religious manual instructing a novice. And as a spiritual instructor sometimes does, Durand tried to make the burden of humble labors less heavy by pointing to their goal. Landscape painting, he wrote, “will be great in proportion as it dictates the glory of God, by representation of his works, and not of the works of man…every truthful study of near and simple objects will qualify you for the more difficult and complex; it is only thus you can learn to read the great book of Nature, to comprehend it, and eventually transcribe from its pages, and attach to the transcript your own commentaries.” But he immediately cautions on the priorities involved and warns the acolyte not to overvalue hard-won technical facility: “There is the letter and the spirit in the true Scripture of Art, the former being tributary to the latter, but never overruling it. All the technicalities above named are but the language and the rhetoric which expresses and enforces the doctrine.…”

Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875