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George Inness and the Visionary Landscape

National Academy of Design, New York

September 17 to December 28, 2003

San Diego Museum of Art

January 24 to April 18, 2004

"Home of the Heron" by George Inness

"The Home of the Heron," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 by 45 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward B. Butler Collection, 1893

By Carter B. Horsley

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" practitioners.

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.

"Sunrise" by George Inness

"Sunrise," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 by 45 ¼ inches, The Metropolitan Museum, anonymous gift in memory of Emile Thiele, 1887

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 continued.

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 contemplation."

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 me meaning."
"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 airplane.

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 or hesitation.'"

"Clearing Up" by George Inness

"Clearing Up," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 15 by 25 inches, George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Mass., 1860

"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.

"Lake Nemi" by George Inness

"Lake Nemi," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 by 45 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1872

Inness, 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.'"

"The Monk" by George Inness

"The Monk," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 38 9/16 by 64 1/8 inches, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., gift of Stephen C. Clark, 1873

"Inness 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."

"The Trout Brook" by George Inness

"The Trout Brook," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 2/4 by 45 ¼ inches, The Newark Museum, New Jersey, 1891

Inness's 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."

"The Old Barn"

"The Old Barn," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 by 45 inches, private collection, courtesy of Thomas Colville Fine Art, circa 1888

"Given 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."

"October Noon" by George Inness

"October Noon," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 by 45 inches, The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1891

This is 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.

"Harvest Moon" by George Inness

"Harvest Moon," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 by 44 ½ inches, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., bequest of Mabel Stevens Smithers, The Frances Sydney Smithers Memorial, 1891

Inness is 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 as Inness.

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:

"There 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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