(Newburgh, New York, 1825 - 1894, Bridge of Allan, Scotland)
George Inness was one of nineteenth-century America’s greatest landscape painters. He combined a respect for the grandeur of nature with a devotion to metaphysical, particularly theological, ideas. As his art matured over the more than forty years of his career, Inness came to explore the relationship between the material world and the spiritual, unseen realms of faith and religion. (1)
Inness was born near the Hudson River valley town of Newburgh, New York in 1825. As an infant, his family moved to Newark, New Jersey, and later to New York City, where he was raised, lived, and eventually worked. In 1841, his initial exposure to a professional art environment was as an apprentice in an engraving firm, most likely Sherman and Smith in New York City. (2) His first teacher was an itinerant painter, John Jesse Barker (active 1815-1856), and, in 1843 he studied briefly with Regis Francois Gignoux (French, 1816-1882), an immigrant who had studied within the French Academy system. Inness admired the artistic tradition that Gignoux represented, and he was initially fascinated by the compositions of the seventeenth-century French landscapist Claude Lorraine (French, 1600-1682).
An early patron was The American Art Union until it was dissolved in 1851; the Union purchased 24 works by Inness between 1845 and 1851. (3) The works Inness painted in the late 1840s fell within the category most favored by the Art Union, a combination of romantic landscape elements with touches of rural genre.
Between 1851 and 1854, Inness began the peripatetic lifestyle that would characterize virtually his entire career. He first visited Europe with stays in France, England, Holland and Italy. The historical and contemporary art he experienced while in this periods of European travel, and later his residences in Italy, augmented his limited formal study. His work evolved from his appreciation of the various compositional techniques of European painters from the seventeenth century, as well as the emotional content of the landscapes of the Barbizon artists of France who were his own contemporaries. (4)
In 1860, he relocated from New York to Medfield, Massachusetts, a small town near Boston, where he hoped that his Barbizon-inspired works might find better critical reception. (5) His work of the 1860s was much better received, and his reputation as a landscape painter was fully established during that decade. The success of his more gestural, expressive works of that period may have been due partially to the heightened intensity and the societal upheaval engendered by the Civil War, but equally they reflected the flowering of his personal religious beliefs. Patrons of Inness’s work included the prominent Brooklyn-based pastor and theologian, Henry Ward Beecher. It is believed that Beecher’s philosophy of art “—that art is expressive, not imitative—“ informed Inness’s attempt to correlate natural phenomena with religious truth. (6) By 1867, Inness had embraced the tenets of Swedenborgianism, under the influence of the painter William Page, an artist he had probably first met in Florence, and later worked with at the Eagleswood Estate in New Jersey.
In 1870, Inness went to Rome with the intention of remaining there permanently.
His relocation to Europe was prompted by a business arrangement he executed with the Boston art dealers Wiliams & Everett, who agreed to accept all the paintings he made abroad in exchange for a regular stipend. He became attached to the circle of artists around the American Elihu Vedder (1836-1923). “During the winter of 1870-71, Inness abandoned his modified Eagleswood technique of the late 1860s, following his Roman associates in using a thicker opaque paint, often modified with brown glazes in the traditional manner. “ (7) In response to his dealer’s expectations, his style became more polished and detailed, his subjects designed to appeal to popular taste. He eventually abandoned his plan to settle permanently in Italy, and in 1875 returned to America, again settling at Medfield, near Boston. His works of the later 1870s are some of his most prized, conveying the ultimate embodiment of his spirituality reflected in monumental forms, confident brushwork and dramatic color.
By the 1880s Inness had finally settled at a home in Montclair, New Jersey. In the last decade of his career, he was highly respected by his peers, contemporary critics, and the American art world. He was admired for his maturation as a landscape painter, as well as for the intellectual inquiry and spirituality that informed his painting methods. Late in his career, he once again demonstrated his openness to change and the willingness to expand the range of expression in his art by a change in style.
This change in style in the last decade of his career may have been prompted by his exposure to a group of younger artists beginning in the late 1870s. His son, George Inness, Jr. and his son-in-law Jonathan Scott Hartley (1845-1912), were artists active in the contemporary art scene. (8) In June of 1877, Inness joined younger, European trained artists from Munich and Paris in forming the Society of American Artists, and he was associated with these younger artists and their more progressive styles through the 1880s. (9) A major exhibition held at the American Art Galleries in New York in 1884 provided the occasion to summarize Inness’s accomplishments, both for the public, and for himself. After that time, he began to create pictures that “synthesized” the various approaches in his prior work, a style “that simultaneously acknowledged the claims of subjectivity (form and feeling) and objectivity (convincing descriptiveness). (10)
The shift that occurred in 1883-1884 led to what has been called Inness’s “aesthetic style”—consistent with the dominant trends of the mid-1880s he abandoned the need to paint from nature directly, and began to take more complete control of every compositional element. He was “free to arrange and interpret elements of the landscape to suit aesthetic or expressive purposes.” (11) Overall, it was color that predominated in the later work, and form was frequently dissolved in the harmonies that he envisioned in these studio-based works. Many of these late works are considered “the great masterpieces of his career.” (12)
These exceptional paintings were often commissioned from the artist by an increasingly discerning group of collectors of American art, led by Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931), who also eventually became Inness’s agent. The artist prospered in the final years of his career, and was given the financial incentives to devote time to the development and completion of his late works.
Increasingly the compositions and subject matter of these paintings from the 1880s strongly suggest the resolution of his spiritual beliefs, particularly the symbolism of natural elements such as light and physical space as defined by Swedenborgian teachings. These teachings posit that a spiritual world exists within the material world, but that it is accessible only to the enlightened. “According to Swedenborg, the light—which is divine truth, and which proceeds from the sun of the spiritual world, Jehovah—illuminates the mind, elevates the thought and enables one to see.” (13) The dissolution of forms and space within glowing fields of color raise the viewer’s awareness of their spiritual intent and character.
Never physically vigorous, the artist’s health declined slowly in the early 1890s, and he passed away in 1894. As one of the most prolific landscape painters in American art history, Inness influenced multiple generations of artists in the late nineteenth century, and his final reputation rests on his extraordinary, spiritually inspired interpretations of natural beauty.
(1) The primary biographical sources for George Inness’s life and career include: Michael Quick, George Inness: A Catalogue Raisonné, Volume One and Two, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007; Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. and Michael Quick, George Inness, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984, and Leroy Ireland, The Works of George Inness: An Illustrated Catalogue Raisonné , Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965.
(2) Quick, volume one, p. 33.
(3) Quick, volume one, p. 39.
(4) Inness welcomed influences, and his art underwent dramatic perturbations. Successively, sometimes almost simultaneously, it took different forms. What underlies its changeableness and, as a will to renovation, partly explains it, is modernity.” Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., “The Civilized Landscape,” George Inness (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984), p. 11.
(5) Barbizon painting was initially more popular with collectors and critics in Boston than in New York. In addition, he may have relocated for health reasons. From childhood Inness suffered from epilepsy, and all his life he was somewhat physically and emotionally frail. Cikovsky, Jr., p. 20.
(6) Cikovsky, Jr., p. 27.
(7) Quick, volume one, p. 328.
(8) Cikovsky, Jr., p. 34. Cikovsky notes that younger artists returning from training in Europe mirrored Innesses own long-held beliefs, “that artistic form made definite aesthetic and expressive claims, which must in some way be visually acknowledged.” Therefore his work was less “out of place” in the contemporary art world of the 1880s.
(9) Quick, volume one, p. 345
(10) Cikovsky, Jr., p. 35.
(11) Quick, volume 2, p. 14.
(12) Quick, volume 2, p. 20.
(13) Quick, volume 2, p. 39.