It isn’t that, when Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton purchased Asher B. Durand’s 1849 painting Kindred Spirits last year, she got the state of Arkansas to pass legislation specifically to save her taxes–in this case, about $3 million on a purchase price of $35 million. It isn’t that the world’s second-richest woman and ninth-richest person (according to a Forbes magazine 2005 estimate) scooped the painting out from under the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had banded together to try to keep it in a public collection when the New York Public Library decided to sell it off. It isn’t that Walton will eventually stick this talisman of New England cultural life and a lot of other old American paintings in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Walton family museum she’s building in Bentonville, Arkansas, the site of Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters–after all, people in the middle of the country should get to see some good art too. It might not even be, as Wal-MartWatch.com points out, that the price of the painting equals what the state of Arkansas spends every two years providing for Wal-Mart’s 3,971 employees on public assistance; or that the average Wal-Mart cashier makes $7.92 an hour and, since Wal-Mart likes to keep people on less than full-time schedules, works only twenty-nine hours a week for an annual income of $11,948–so a Wal-Mart cashier would have to work a little under 3,000 years to earn the price of the painting without taking any salary out for food, housing or other expenses (and a few hundred more years to pay the taxes, if the state legislature didn’t exempt our semi-immortal worker).
The trouble lies in what the painting means and what Alice Walton and her $18 billion mean. Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways. The superb Rockefeller folk art collections in several American museums don’t include paintings of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre of miners in Colorado, carried out by Rockefeller goons, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles doesn’t say a thing about oil. But something about Wal-Mart and Kindred Spirits is more peculiar than all the robber barons and their chapels, galleries and collections ever were, perhaps because, more than most works of art, Durand’s painting is a touchstone for a set of American ideals that Wal-Mart has been savaging.
It may be true that, in an era when oil companies regularly take out advertisements proclaiming their commitment to environmentalism, halting global warming, promoting petroleum alternatives and conservation measures, while many of them also fund arguments against climate change’s very existence, nothing is too contrary to embrace. But Kindred Spirits is older, more idealistic and more openly at odds with this age than most hostages to multinational image-making.
Kindred Spirits portrays Durand’s friend, the great American landscape painter Thomas Cole, with his friend, the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant. The two stand on a projecting rock above a cataract in the Catskills, bathed like all the trees and air around them in golden light. The painting is about friendship freely given, including a sense of friendship, even passion, for the American landscape itself. In the work of Cole, Durand and Bryant, as in the writing of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, you can see an emerging belief that the love of nature, beauty, truth and freedom are naturally allied, a romantic vision that still lingers as one of the most idealistic versions of what it might mean to be an American.
Cole was almost the first American painter to see the possibilities in American landscapes, to see that meaning could grow rather than lessen in a place not yet full of ruins and historical associations, and so he became an advocate for wilderness nearly half a century before California rhapsodist and eventual Sierra Club co-founder John Muir took up the calling. Bryant had gained a reputation as a poet before he became editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post and thereby a pivotal figure in the culture of the day. He defended a group of striking tailors in 1836, long before there was a union movement, and was ever after a champion of freedom and human rights, turning his newspaper into an antislavery mouthpiece and eventually becoming a founder of the Republican Party (back when that was the more progressive and less beholden of the two parties). He was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln and of the projects that resulted in New York’s Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum–of a democratic urban culture that believed in the uplifting power of nature and of free access.