For many people,
there are three basic types of American landscape painting: realistic,
impressionistic and abstract. Thomas Cole, Frederick Church and
Albert Bierstadt typify the glories of the "realistic"
Hudson River and Rocky Mountain "schools; John Twachtman,
William Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam typify the glories of
the "impressionist" camp; and Richard Diebenkorn, Georgia
O'Keefe and Charles Sheeler typify the glories of the "abstract"
There is, however, another category, Tonalism, which is typified
by the late work of George Inness, who was born in 1825 in Newburgh,
New York and began his career as a Hudson River School painter.
In contrast with the clarity of the Hudson River School aesthetic,
the flourishes of the Impressionists and the boldness of the abstract
artists, Tonalism is poetic, lush, rapturous and intimate. It
evokes the best of Whistlerian reverie and begs for some diaphonous
ladies by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.
The human figure is occasional
present in the best of Inness's paintings, but they are minimally
represented and usually are solitary, anonymous figures.
Inness's favorite compositions are horizontal with a tree trunk
at one side, usually at sunset.
In her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Annette Blaugrund,
the director of the National Academy of Design, notes that "Inness's
late paintings resonate with affinities to both historic and contemporary
work." "In their hazy details, disrupted picture planes,
and single-figure themes, they remind us of Gustave Courbet's
and James McNeill Whistler's beach scenes of the 1860s as much
as they seem to herald the reductive, spiritual style of Mark
Rothko's paintings of the 1950s and 1960s," Ms. Blaugrund
Her introduction quotes several current members of the Academy
on whom Inness made a great impression: "It was a way into
painting along with Albert Ryder and Louis Eilshemius [see The City Review article]," maintained
Susan Shattner who added that she can not "think of another
painter who made greens as luscious and luminous.He could turn
an ordinary tree or field into an extraordinary visual experience";
"Inness tends to interest me more than any other American
painter pre-Marsden Hartley and John Marin," observed Rackstraw
Downes, who added that "Inness painted the light of the whole
painting. The surface is all suffused, sky and land are one. Weather
is not denoted meteorologically, but built in. Especially when
painting heavy, soporific late afternoons or autumn days, Inness
is original and supreme. There are no anecdotes in his painting,
and no false or a priori grandeur. He doesn't need Niagara, and
Rome is not more glorious than New Jersey. What's American about
Inness is an art issue: he is moody and sad. He was not at ease
with his yearning as Corot was with his nostalgia; Corot was heir
to a culture he could take for granted, whereas Inness was seeking
one he could believe in."
Inness actually did paint Niagara Falls on a few occasions (see
The City Review article). A comparison
with Corot is apt, of course, because of the poetic nature of
the two artists, but Inness is more painterly and has a richer
palette and far more interesting compositions.
In her exhibition catalogue, Adrienne Baxter Bell reproduces a
photograph portrait of Inness holding a skull and notes that "Debates
on the distinctions between appearance and reality, the seen and
the unseen, the natural and spiritual realms, the waking and unconscious
states, and on the filaments entwining sleep, dreams, and death
continuously preoccupied both Inness and Hamlet." "Hamlet's
obsessions," she continued, " are renowned; less familiar
are those of Inness. In fact, for every hour that Inness spent
painting, he seems to have spent another hour harvesting metaphysical
problems and ideas from the domains of philosophy, psychology,
mathematics, and especially theology."
Ms. Bell maintains that during the last quarter of his life, Inness,
who died in 1894, launched upon a "new and ambitious mode
of landscape painting." "Shaped in large part by Inness's
devotion to metaphysical ideas, especially to theological ones,
these paintings encourage viewers to think in new ways about themselves
and about their relationships to nature and to the divine. Seen
as a group, they remain some of the most thought-provoking and
inspiring works in the history of art. The authority and the mystery
of their effectiveness remain as powerful today as they did more
than a century ago," Ms. Bell wrote.
She quotes Albert Pinkham Ryder as seeing himself as an inch worm
at the end of a leaf "trying to find something out there
beyond the place on which I have a footing," and suggests
that like Ryder Inness "aspired to the sacred," adding
that his late landscapes "are visionary for their prescience."
"Grounded in the lessons and traditions of their time, they
transcend those lessons and offer wholly new pictorial forms for
Ms. Bell correctly recalls that many important earlier American
artists, such as Thomas Cole and Frederick Edwin Church, viewed
the American landscape of their eras as embued with religious
significance and their depictions of "Manifest Destiny"
celebrated the wonders of nature. Not included in the exhibition,
but reproduced in the catalogue is "The Lackawanna Valley,"
a large oil by Inness in the collection of the National Gallery
of Art in Washington. She notes that the 1855 work "encapsulated
the conflicting responses from American artists to industry's
growing assault on God's wilderness," adding that "Here,
a lone figure, reclining on a sloping coulisse, blithely contemplates
how the construction of a new railroad station has reduced the
surrounding Edenic fields to patches of unsightly tree stumps."
Inness traveled to Europe a couple of times in the early 1850s
and Ms. Bell observed that "his exposure to the work of the
Barbizon School surely confirmed what he later identified as his
instinctive sense that `elabourateness in detail did not gain
"Inness's instinctive attraction to the emotionalism and
painterly practices of the Barbizon School placed him at odds
with the prevailing artistic tendencies of his native land. Inness's
paintings shared an affinity with the works of numerous American
artists, writers and philosophers who derived inspiration from
visionary beliefs and ideas." Ms. Bell mentions such artists
as Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock and Elihu Vedder for their
mystic works, adding that Inness was drawn to the doctrines of
the Swedish scientist-turned visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)
as were such other American artists as William Page, William Keith,
Thomas Anshutz, and Hiram Powers. In 1867, Inness published on
article on the spiritual significance of colors in the New Jerusalem
Messenger, a Swedenborgian newspaper. Ralph Waldo Emerson said
of Swedenborg in his 1849 work "Representative Men,"
that "this man, who appeared to his contemporaries a visionary,
and elixir of moonbeams, no doubt led the most real life of any
man then in the world." Swedenborg published texts on geology,
chemistry and anatomy and designed a submarine and a fixed-wind
Ms. Bell provides the following commentary on Swedenborg's philosophy:
"According to Swedenborg, that which is interior, or spiritual,
is more real and precedes that which is exterior, or natural.
Man is not formed in body and then imbued with spirit;
on the contrary, the body is the evolution of the spirit, just
as an architect's building is the physical manifestation of an
idea that first appeared in his mind (his own spiritual realm)
and then descended to the exterior world. For Swedenborg, the
relationship between the interior and the exterior is, therefore,
correspondential, in that every thing and every quality from the
natural world first possesses a spiritual identity, a correspondence
at the level of the soul."
Ms. Bell also notes that Inness was interested in numbers. She
suggested that a "feature of Swedenborgian doctrine that
is related to correspondence theory may have helped Inness, during
the 1860s, to formuate one of his most inventive indeed, most
visionary concepts of pictorial space. That feature is the principle
of spiritual influx."
"The true end of Art is not to imitate a fixed material condition,
but to represent a living motion," according to Inness, who
added that "The intelligence to be conveyed by it is not
of an outer fact, but of an inner life." "In Inness's
world view," Ms. Bell wrote, "divine influx fueled not
only the `living motion' of nature but also artistic inspiration.
Inness alluded to this identity when he explained, `The greatness
of art is not in the display of knowledge, or in material accuracy,
but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impressions
of a personal vital force, that acts spontaneously, without fear
"The Lackawanna Valley"
and "Peace and Plenty," which is in the collection of
the Metropolitan Museum of Art and also is not included in the
exhibition," are very large and impressive early compositions
but are painted a bit clumsily. Inness, however, was a very capable
painter many of whose works are very fine landscapes in the best
Hudson River School tradition. "Hackensack Meadows, Sunset,"
a 1859 small oil at the New York Historical Society on loan from
the New York Public Library, is an excellent example, as is "Clearing
Up," a 1860 small oil in the collection of the George Walter
Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Mass.
according to Ms. Bell, may have been influenced also by Swedenborg's
Doctrine of Forms and was very interested in geometry. "We
discern early evidence of this tendency in Lake Nemi, a
work that Inness, in a rare expression of self-gratification,
deemed `one of my very best.'"
extends his investigation of the evocative power of compositional
order in The Monk, one of his most haunting works and among
the finest paintings of the nineteenth century. The setting for
this extraordinary landscape is thought to be a particularly secluded
corner of the grounds of the Villa Barberini, near Castel Gandolfo,
a summer residence of the pope located some fifteen miles south
of Rome. As in Lake Nemi, Inness pictures a solitary, cowled
monk, a staff in his hand, strolling the grounds of an enclosed
garden. He is dwarfed, first, by a tall stone wall, behind him
and again by a bank of extremely tall, slender Italian pines in
the middle distance. Although Italian pines are common features
around Rome and the Marches, and although Inness had painted the
Villa Barberini on many occasions, only in The Monk does
he set the dark shapes of the pine arbors so effectively against
a glowing yellow-ocher sky. By using unified brushmarks to diminish
nearly to eliminate details within these arbors, Inness devised
these natural forms as abstract patterns of interconnected ensiform
shapes. He must have been particularly delighted by the way in
which they create, at their upper edge, a lissome, serpentine
line of vivid beauty, one made even more dramatic when offset
by the strong vertical lines of the tree trunks below."
delight in the suggestive power of geometric forms emerged with
even greater force after 1878, when he regularly raised horizon
lines to the middle of his landscapes in order to bisect compositional
space. In this way, he transformed the traditional proportions
of landscape painting from one-third land and two-thirds sky to
equal parts of land and sky. Moreover, he often vertically subdivided
the section of sky into one-half trees and one-half sky, thereby
producing a new ratio of one-quarter sky to three-quarters vegetation.To
underscore this architectonic division of space, Inness often
included a tree, devoid of horizontal branches, at or very close
to the center of the painting. We see versions of this tree in
Sunset At Montclair, The Trout Brook.This median tree tends
to block our wandering gaze, to stymie our access into the represented
recesses of pictorial space. It challenges the long-standing identity
of pictorial space as a mirror of observed reality. Although Inness
is frequently identified as a Tonalist artist, I would suggest
that this geometric organization of compositional space distinguishes
his work from that of his Tonalist contemporaries such as John
Francis Murphy and Dwight William Tryon. In their landscapes,
enigmatic spaces and forms remain relatively unconstrained by
the somewhat occult presence of compositional order. Closer in
style and ideology to Inness's work is the refined, pictorial
style that came to be known, a century later, as Luminism. A frequent
participant in exhibitions and auctions that represented the works
of Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Kensett,
and Sanford R. Gifford, Inness was unquestionably familiar with
the works of Luminist artists. To a certain extent, works such
as Inness's Lake Nemi, The Monk and Castel Gandolfo
reflect the artistic ideals of Luminism. Here, Inness engaged
the Luminist passion for economical, refined design. His representation
of light in Lake Nemi, a warm, diffused light that bathes the
setting with an incandescent glow, effectively embodies the Luminist
aesthetic.despite all of their constructed elements, Inness's
paintings remain, in many areas, enigmatically produced. They
are, in short, filled with capricious features. In addition to
the near absence of detail in the pine powers of The Monk,
we add the inscrutable foregrounds of many of Inness's most ordered
compositions. In Lake Nemi, The Monk, October Noon, The Home
of the Heron, The Lone Farm, and Hazy Morning, Montclair,
for example, Inness's rapidly executed brushmarks telegraph the
presence, without ever representing the identities, of organic
forms. More often than not, they appear to rest on the surface
of the canvas, wholly unaffiliated to other features of the composition.
It may be said that they correspond to divine influx, to its force
and to its incarnation as artistic inspiration, rather than serve
the exigencies of illusionistic representation. In the end, these
brushstrokes deny the Luminist's and the Transcendentalist's submission
of the self and, conversely, assert the presence of the artist
in the correspondential relationship between nature and the divine."
that all art maintained a theological identity for Inness that
he aspired to 'resolve' theology into the 'scientific form' of
landscape painting it is likely that Inness viewed the capacity
of art to 'awaken an emotion' as akin to a spiritual awakening,"
Ms. Bell wrote. "During the late 1880s," she continued,
"Inness explored this theme in depth. He engaged his viewers
more effectively than ever by generating complex illusions of
forms in nature through an admixture of virtuosic brushstrokes.
The Old Barn offers a particularly fine example of this
achievement. It is likely that, as Michael Quick [the complier
of the artist's catalogue raisonée] has suggested, the
setting is Inness's property in Montclair, New Jersey. Inness's
familiarity with the scene may have motivated him to paint it
with a heightened sense of immediacy. Here, Inness presents every
type of brushstroke and method of applying pigment. Bright swirls
of green paint build the illusion of wind rustling through a spring
lawn. Highlights on the central tree trunk emerge through rapid
strokes of light yellow paint. Streaks from dry brushes capture
a gentle rustling of arbors. Scratches from the tip of his brush
handle reveal contrasting darkness beneath the swatches of yellow-orange
on the barn. Appealing to our primitive attraction to the material
and sensual qualities of paint, Inness left many objects thickly
impasted in unadulterated colors: the splash of red on the wheelbarrow
pusher's head a tribute, perhaps, to Inness's admiration for the
works of the Barbizon painter Corot provides a striking complement
to the globules of pure white that generate highlights on his
shirt. Equally undiluted are the rough patches of bright turquoise
between black streaks that together construct the woman's dress.
Particularly striking is the wheelbarrow behind the barn. The
dozen (or so) strokes that crystallize this complex form bear
the hallmarks of the finest examples of Zen calligraphy: the aura
of intensity, the balance of control and freedom, and the call
to read the negative spaces as meaningful factors."
Inness would occasionally paint with his fingers and would often
repaint some of his works, sometimes even after they had been
sold. Beauty, he once remarked, "depends upon the unseen."
Ms. Bell describes the often solitary figures in many of Inness's
landscapes as "anonymous" and observes that they serve
to accent a "communion" with nature and the divine.
They make us "increasingly aware not only of the artist's
generative role as inventor but also of our own role as interpreter
of the pictorial forms and field," adding that "Adopting
distinctly introspective poses, Inness's anonymous figures do
indeed call to mind visionary activities."
"One may argue that, during the last third of the nineteenth
century, American painting in general became more suggestive,
more resonant with the [William] Jamesian idea of consciousness
as a `stream," Ms. Bell wrote, adding that "Tonalist
artists such as Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Henry Ward Ranger, and James
McNeill Whistler all created paintings in tonal hues and kindred
compositional brushstrokes to evoke moments of temporal transition
and other poetic moods. Yet Inness's work, especially his late
landscape paintings, remains distinct, too, for its seemingly
esoteric mathematical and geometric structures, which we have
seen so brilliantly executed in Lake Nemi, The Monk, and
Castel Gandolfo, and which emerge, after a hiatus during
the late 1870s, in such masterful late landscape paintings as
October Noon and The Home of the Heron [illustrated
at the top of this article]. In these works, the covert, underlying
presence of structure alludes, as it does in Luminist landscapes,
to the authority of an omniscient, organizing force within nature,
a force that may well be described as divine."
a lovely exhibition with many large and major works, although
not as many as contained in the 1985-6 exhibition at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art that traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of
Art and the National Gallery of Art. That exhibition included
"Autumn Oaks," one of his most famous paintings that
is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another
recent exhibition was held in 1994 at the Montclair Art Museum
in New Jersey, which has the largest collection of works by Inness.
What is particularly interesting about this exhibition is that
is contains numerous large paintings in which Inness employed
an interesting, almost gravelly painting technique that is not
usually seen in his small works that are more often found at auctions.
Ms. Bell's study of Inness's interest in the ideas of Swedenborg
is fascinating, especially since viewers are not likely to detect,
nor need to detect, the artist's metaphysical underpinings to
appreciate the beauty of his works.
very subtle and while there is great consistency in his important
late works, there are many surprises in his oeuvre. It is unfortunate,
for example, that the Metropolitan Museum did not lend another
fabulous Inness, a work with a quite bright and bluish palette
that is extremely lyrical. Michael Quick, who attended the opening
of this exhibition, estimated in an interview that there are about
1,000 extant oils by Inness, so hopefully this exhibition will
serve as a fine introduction for many to his oeuvre.
In her excellent
review in the September 26, 2003 edition of The New York Times,
Roberta Smith observed that "Inness wanted to show that paint
has a nature all its own, and that God, or something close, was
in the lack of details." Ms. Smith added that "Inness's
appreciation of paint as a vehicle for personal, complex emotional
expression was years ahead of its time. His work has long been
considered a precursor to the painterly, process-oriented art
of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning."
Inness was not the only Hudson River School painter who changed
styles from tight realism to impressionistic and very painterly
works. Alexander Wyant and Homer Dodge Martin also made such changes,
though neither produced as many beautiful and poetic late works
In his wonderful
book, "The Artmakers of Nineteenth Century America,"
(Atheneum, 1970), Russell Lynes devoted a whole chapter to Inness
and provided the following commentary:
have not been many American art-makers who were regarded by their
contemporaries as bonded geniuses. Allston was one, as were Thomas
Cole and Kensett and Frederic Church; another, George Inness,
had the temperament, the talent and the gift for attracting attention
(which he professed to despise, and possibly did) that caused
critics to trip over their tongues in their searches for superlatives."
At his best,
which he usually was, Inness was often sublime and in some works
like "The Old Barn" he was extraordinary. "The
Old Barn" is almost abstract and incredibly painterly. In
its selection of his works, this exhibition really focuses on
his quite remarkably diverse painting techniques that were very
much ahead of his time.
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