The Early Years
George Inness came of age during the formation of the Hudson River School, whose artists viewed nature as a manifestation of the divine and strove to represent it as faithfully as possible. However, Inness distinguished himself from this group in the profound degree to which philosophical and spiritual ideas inspired his work. Ultimately, he became the leading American artist-philosopher of his generation.
Briefly trained by John Jesse Barker, Inness gained most of his knowledge of compositional structure by studying landscapes of the old masters, especially Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, while working first at the engraving company Sherman & Smith and then at N. Currier (later Currier & Ives). Referring to reproductions of these paintings, he observed, “There was a power of motive, a bigness of grasp, in them. They were nature, rendered grand instead of being belittled by trifling detail and puny execution.” Shortly thereafter, Inness encountered the works of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. “There was a lofty striving in Cole,” he admiringly recalled. In the works of Durand, Inness sensed “a more intimate feeling of nature.” He hoped to assimilate these qualities into his own paintings. After taking additional lessons from Régis François Gignoux in 1843, Inness exhibited for the first time the following year at the National Academy of Design (NAD). He officially joined the New York art world when he opened his own studio in the city two years later.
Inness’ first international trip, in 1851, took him to Rome and Florence; A Bit of the Roman Aqueduct (1852; High Museum of Art, Atlanta) reflects his full-scale assimilation of the lessons of Claude. In Florence, he met the portraitist William Page and almost certainly discussed the works of Titian, which Page often copied and which moved Inness’ style in a more painterly direction. Perhaps most important, through Page, Inness came to know the writings of the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, which increasingly shaped his personal and aesthetic philosophy. Stopping in Paris on his return to New York, Inness attended the Salon and, for the first time, saw paintings by Barbizon artists, including Théodore Rousseau (25.110.4). They offered an alternative to the more scrupulous work of some of Inness’ contemporaries, such as the artists of the New Path, known more formally as members of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art. In the mid-1860s, these artists, championed by the art critic Clarence Cook, derived much inspiration from John Ruskin’s call to uncover divine significance in the smallest facets of nature. The purposefulness and determination of their search were mirrored in accurate representations of nature’s physiognomy; only by representing nature in this way could the artist’s imagination “do its work.” While Inness was equally inspired by the idea of divine significance in nature, he was drawn to the fresh, loose brushwork and overt emotional tenor of Barbizon paintings. The approach of the New Path artists remained influential until the early 1870s, when Americans adopted more cosmopolitan aesthetics and developed, by extension, a greater appreciation for Inness’ Barbizon-inspired paintings.
After his election to Associate of the NAD in 1853, Inness returned to Europe; in London and Amsterdam, he studied landscapes by Meyndert Hobbema (14.40.614). These works advanced his appreciation for the expressive power of anonymous settings in nature. In 1854, Inness worked in Brooklyn, New York, and befriended the charismatic Protestant minister Henry Ward Beecher, who became a patron and champion of his work. In 1855, he accepted a commission from John Jay Phelps, the first president of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, to represent the site of the railroad’s first roundhouse, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. More striking than this motif in Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley (1855; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) is the juxtaposition of the oncoming train with the swath of tree stumps. It implies that the recumbent, red-vested young man in the foreground is pondering the devastating impact of industrialization on the edenic American wilderness. Although The Lackawanna Valley fell into obscurity during the artist’s lifetime, it later became a landmark American painting, a touchstone for debate on ecological and social issues of the nineteenth century.
The Medfield and Eagleswood Periods
After moving to Medfield, Massachusetts, in June 1860, Inness began to assimilate the evocative tenor of Barbizon and Dutch landscape painting; it emerged, for example, in the expressive brushwork and rich glazes of the Delaware Water Gap (1861) (32.151) and The Delaware Valley (ca. 1863) (99.27). Inness felt a particular kinship with Rousseau, for both artists held that an immaterial, even supernatural force generated all forms of life. During the 1860s, Inness continued to study philosophy; in later interviews, he referenced Archbishop Richard Whately and John Stuart Mill. His deepest interest remained with Swedenborg, whose ideas became widely known in mid-nineteenth-century America, mainly through the Transcendentalists.
An ardent abolitionist, Inness tried to enlist in a Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. Although he failed the physical examination, he organized rallies and frequently gave speeches to drum up donations and volunteers. Some of his paintings of the 1860s reflect both the turmoil and renewed sense of national optimism that the war engendered. One prominent example is the Museum’s Peace and Plenty (1865), which has been the focus of extensive scholarly and critical attention since it was first exhibited in 1866. Most writers have argued that the painting embodies Inness’ optimism for the country’s prospects at the close of the Civil War. They see “plenty,” represented by the wheatfields and burst of sunlight at the painting’s center, as the inevitable consequence of the “peace” heralded by the war’s conclusion. More recently, Leo Mazow interpreted the painting in light of its original owners, Marcus and Rebecca Spring, who founded the social reform organization of Eagleswood Military Academy, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In this reading, Inness’ inclusion of strolling and laboring figures in the painting reflects the Springs’ utopian search for harmony among the social classes. Mazow has also suggested that the painting reflects three different views of history: cyclical, millennial, and progressive. As one of Inness’ largest pre-1870 paintings, Peace and Plenty alludes to the cyclical view of history evoked in Genesis, of alternating feast and famine; this perspective was popular during the mid-nineteenth century and calls to mind such well-known and similarly dramatic works as Thomas Cole’s five-part series The Course of Empire (1833–36). The bounty of the setting may also reference the conception, favored by Swedenborg and the millennialists, of the “New Jerusalem,” a biblical “promised land” that would follow the Second Coming and the establishment of a Christian kingdom. Finally, in the progressive view, the advent of industrialization, symbolized by the settled countryside in the distance, can still peacefully coexist with the agrarian economy, represented by the sheaves of cut wheat and workers in the foreground. Undoubtedly one of Inness’ greatest, most complex paintings, Peace and Plenty may warrant some or all of these thoughtful interpretations.
The Springs saw education as a powerful means for social change. In the fall of 1863, they invited Inness to become a drawing instructor at Eagleswood. His students included Louis Comfort Tiffany and Carleton Wiggins. In 1866, he received a commission to paint a series on a central theme of Swedenborgian doctrine. Collectively entitled The Triumph of the Cross, the three paintings—only The Valley of the Shadow of Death (Francis Lehman Loeb Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, New York) survives intact—used the trope of “the pilgrim’s journey” to manifest the transition from the desolate, natural realm, illuminated only by a glowing cross in the sky, to the verdant spiritual realm, or “New Jerusalem.” A profile on Inness in Harper’s Weekly (July 13, 1867) defined him as a Swedenborgian and marked the first public affiliation of the two men. Four months later, Inness published an article entitled “Colors and Their Correspondences” in the New Jerusalem Messenger, the chief literary vehicle of the Swedenborgian church in America, in which he expounded on the idea that colors possess specific spiritual identities. In 1868, Inness was elected a Member of the NAD and, in October, he and his wife, Elizabeth Hart Inness, were baptized in the New Church (Swedenborgian) in Brooklyn by the Rev. John Curtis Ager. (Ager would preside over Inness’ funeral at the NAD.)
Inness Abroad and His Return to New England
In 1870, Inness and his family began a four-year stay in Europe. In Rome, he rented the studio on the Via Sistina said to have been occupied by Claude Lorrain. During these years, Inness created landscape paintings primarily in two styles: one group with crisp, geometric spaces that resonate with Swedenborg’s description of the structured character of the spiritual realm, and a second group with generalized spaces and rich, gestural brushwork. Across the Campagna (1872) (67.55.145) and Olive Trees at Tivoli (1873) (1989.287) bridge these two groups by featuring a sophisticated interplay of powerful graphic forms and delicate color washes.
After spending the summer of 1874 in Normandy, Inness moved to Boston to execute several works inspired by the Italian sojourn, including the magisterial Pine Grove of the Barberini Villa (1876) (98.16). The beauty of the fall season in New England inspired the elegiac Autumn Oaks (ca. 1878) (87.8.8); kindred representations during the 1870s of inclement weather presaged the start of a new chapter in his life. In June 1878, Inness rented the Dodge estate in Montclair, New Jersey; during the next sixteen years, he would perfect his “signature” or “synthetic” style of painting. In the early 1880s, he spent a few summers in Milton, Massachusetts, and on Nantucket. In December 1884, he purchased the estate in Montclair and, the following February, moved there permanently, though he continued to retain his studio in New York. Despite the presence of “Montclair” in many of their titles, his paintings from this period generally abjure known sites. Instead, they offer spaces for contemplation and reflection, an idea captured in one of his key remarks from this period: “You must suggest to me reality, you can never show me reality.”
The Late Landscapes
Old age failed to slow George Inness. During his last decade, he visited the Adirondacks, Niagara Falls, Nantucket, Virginia, Georgia, Chicago, California, Montreal, and England; he spent the winter months in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where the tall, nearly branchless pine trees inspired such acclaimed works as The Home of the Heron (1893; Art Institute of Chicago). The unbridled energy that fueled these trips is evident in the many accounts of Inness at work in his studio, which often focus on his physical engagement with the process of painting. His membership in the Society of American Artists, founded in 1878 to challenge the authority and traditionalism of the NAD, underscored his commitment to expressive painting. His progressive stance accorded, too, with his involvement in Henry George’s single-tax movement and his profound concern for workers’ rights.
Inness’ body of work, which comprises more than 1,150 paintings, watercolors, and sketches, remains an extraordinary testament to his lifelong devotion to landscape painting and his ongoing search for fresh pictorial techniques. Often described as a Tonalist, he remains distinct from such artists as James McNeill Whistler (12.32) and Dwight Tryon (17.140.4) in his commitment to the Swedenborgian belief in the existence of a relationship between the natural and spiritual realms. Endlessly compelling as reflections of nature’s physical beauty, Inness’ paintings also invite us to set aside our inclination to identify recognizable places in the natural world. Instead, as we consider such late works as the incandescent Sunrise (1887) (54.156), we might begin to contemplate an unknown, imaginary, perhaps even spiritual existence.