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The Genius of George Inness

The works of George Inness, the American painter, have always provoked strong reactions and intense debate. Even at the height of his fame during the late nineteenth century, his landscape pictures disgusted some viewers, while moving others to rapturous praise. His critics called his paintings “diseased” and “perverted”; a reviewer in The New York Times in 1878 speculated that Inness might be insane. In the very same period, however, his fans—and there were many—lauded the “remarkable originality” and “depth of feeling” of the pictures. In their judgment, Inness was nothing less than the dean of American artists and one of the leading landscape painters in the world. For a time, Inness was both the most controversial and the most influential artist in the country.

Inness’s pictures still retain their power to bewitch and to disturb, and in recent years, the painter has begun again to receive considerable attention from artists and historians. There are now two temporary exhibitions featuring his work, a small show at the Newark Museum,* and a more ambitious one on Inness and his influence at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Recently there have also been several excellent books examining different sides of the artist: a study by Rachael Ziady DeLue of his intellectual milieu and critical reception; an anthology of Inness’s writings, edited by Adrienne Baxter Bell, who also curated a show about the artist at the National Academy of Design in 2003; and an exhaustive catalogue raisonné of the paintings, written by Michael Quick. In the last five years, there have been almost as many books and shows about Inness as in the previous five decades, and together they explain a great deal about this idiosyncratic and fascinating artist.

Born in Newburgh, New York, in 1825, Inness was a member of one of the most fertile generations in the history of American art. His contemporaries included many of the country’s greatest masters; for example, Sanford Gifford, Jasper Cropsey, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt were all born within a few years of Inness. Not until the period following World War II was America again to see at one time so much talent in painting. Inness, it is worth noting, was six years younger than Herman Melville and Walt Whitman; he was five years older than Emily Dickinson, ten years older than Mark Twain. He was twenty-six when Moby-Dick appeared, twenty-nine when Walden was published, thirty at the time of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

As a painter, Inness matured very slowly. Although a professional artist in and around New York and Boston most of his life, he did not become a consistently interesting and inventive painter until he was almost forty; he became a daring experimentalist at fifty, and a radical and visionary at sixty, making his most original and thrilling pictures in the last years of his life before his death in 1894. To understand the slow and peculiar course of his career, it is crucial to look at what he had to overcome.

From early youth, Inness felt an indefatigable need to become a landscape painter. This impulse may always and everywhere be uncommon, but it was especially remarkable in early-nineteenth-century America when few people owned paintings of any kind. With the exception of Charles Willson Peale’s museum of art, science, and history in Philadelphia, there were no public museums and few galleries to visit, and about the only time one could see many paintings was at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, the American Academy of Fine Arts, and (after 1839) the Art-Union in New York. It was particularly difficult to learn about the classic models in the European tradition of landscape painting; these rarely could be studied at all except through descriptions in books and in small, black-and-white engravings made after works by artists such as Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa.

It was also a challenge for Inness, as for all American artists of his generation, to find a master to learn painting from. Almost no art schools existed in America, nor was there an organized system of apprenticeship for painters. Frederic Church was fortunate enough to get Thomas Cole, the greatest living artist in America, to give him lessons. Inness was never so lucky in this regard: he had a total of only two months of instruction in painting, and his teachers were provincial masters; in drawing, he had no lessons at all. Inness was essentially a self-taught artist.

To see how great a liability this was for Inness, one need only think of the typical education of young artists in early-nineteenth-century Europe. They enrolled in special academies, and followed a structured curriculum that required many years to complete. The drawing course alone could last two years or more and was devised to make the student master each of several basic components, such as line, modeling, shading, foreshortening, and perspective. The instruction in painting as well was systematic and rigorous.

Inness got none of this, and being less naturally gifted than some other artists, until the end of his life he often had difficulty with many of the fundamentals of visual representation. He could not draw well; without exception his figures are stiff and rudimentary, and the complexities of the branch system of a tree were beyond his powers of observation and delineation. He also never mastered shading, scale, or perspective. For example, the relative positions of the hay bales scattered about in Peace and Plenty (1865) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are hard to determine and they look like they are floating above the ground, rather than lying on it. Moreover, their forms are so schematic in rendering that they could be almost anything at all: surely, they look more like lumps of dough than bales of hay.

Inness was keenly aware of his inadequacies as a naturalistic painter. He complained in letters and interviews of the difficulty he felt with accurate and detailed depiction; the struggle often exhausted and depressed him. Making his problem worse, Inness came to artistic maturity in the 1850s when representational painting was at a peak of popularity in America. Frederic Church, one year younger than Inness, and perhaps the most gifted naturalistic painter the country has ever seen, was the most successful artist of the decade. Reviewers praised “the perfect accuracy in drawing” of Church’s meticulous yet awe-inspiring panoramas such as Niagara (1857) and Heart of Andes (1859). By contrast, they lambasted Inness’s weak skills as a draftsman; they complained of his “badly-drawn” figures and “strange and unreal” clouds and trees.

For much of the first two decades of his career, Inness struggled and pondered and experimented, but he only achieved inconsistent results and limited commercial success. His works of the 1840s, often modeled after pictures by the baroque artists Claude Lorrain and Meindert Hobbema, seem especially clumsy and derivative. Following two trips to Europe in the early 1850s, Inness displayed far greater technical command in painting than he had before. He was now sometimes capable of making pictures of real beauty, such as The Lackawanna Valley from 1855 (National Gallery of Art), with its ample spacious landscape and its delicate effects of light and atmosphere. Conceptually, however, Inness was still bound by tradition and convention, and his pictures from the 1850s almost invariably show a heavy debt to other artists, whether American masters, such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, or modern French painters like Théodore Rousseau and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

It was only in the course of the 1860s that Inness began to emerge as a truly strong and individual talent. The key to his new vigor was his bold rejection of the empirical standards of representational painting, an exceptional departure at the time. According to Inness, the art of Church, Bierstadt, and the Hudson River School aspired to nothing more than an accurate description of the surfaces of the world. It thus missed the sacred beauty and the universal truths that lay beneath material reality. “Scenic art can never assume to be a representative of the higher forms of mind,” Inness wrote. In his view, art should be an endeavor of the spirit, not of the intellect; it should be allied with religion and poetry, not science. He said:

An artist may study anatomy, geology, botany…but the quantity and the force of his acquisitions must be subjected to the regulating power of the artistic sentiment that inspires him. Otherwise, his pictures will be anatomical platitudes, scientific diagrams, geographical maps, instead of living men and significant landscapes….

The intellect desires to define everything…. Its cravings are for what it can see, lay hold, measure, weigh, examine. But God is always hidden, and beauty depends on the unseen, the visible upon the invisible.

It was a confluence of friendships and influences that helped set Inness free to look for a new way in art. He took great interest in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic and philosopher, and joined a Swedenborgian church in the 1860s. Today this mystic is routinely dismissed as a crank, but in the nineteenth century he was considered a genius of the first order, someone of the stature of Plato or Newton. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s many comments about him make plain his appeal, for example: “I count the genius of Swedenborg and Wordsworth as the agents of a reform in philosophy, the bringing poetry back to Nature,—to the marrying of Nature and mind.”

Inness was also attracted to the Transcendentalist movement; its messages of the importance of self-reliance and of the divinity of nature deeply appealed to him. The artist had very strong ties with abolitionists, writers, and intellectuals from New England. In the summer of 1862, he went on a painting expedition with William James, who was then an aspiring artist. Moreover, for a time in the 1860s Inness lived and worked at a school where Emerson and other Transcendentalists, such as Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, had lectured only a short while before. In these years, too, Inness became a friend and protégé of Henry Ward Beecher, the journalist and preacher. Perhaps more than any other man, Beecher helped popularize the tenets of Transcendentalism and make them seem a normal part of liberal Christianity. Beecher’s theories of art were very close to Inness’s own. For example, in his novel Norwood, written in 1868, Beecher argues that most landscape painters were mere “copyists of nature in her more material aspects,” who “see only matter, not mind, in nature.” The ideal painter, by contrast,

ought to see grace, beauty, tenderness, and subtle fancies in nature which common eyes fail to see…. It is the amount of one’s self in a picture that determines whether it is made by an artist or an artisan.

Inness, I believe, also found much encouragement in Emerson’s essays. Previously the painter had at times been humbled by his lack of background and training. But Emerson taught that the importance of inherited standards and a European education were overvalued. The key, he said, was to trust one’s god-given talent and will:

The soul created the arts wherever they have flourished. It was in his own mind that the artist sought his model…. Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession…. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses or Dante, but different from all these.

Emerson preached another point dear to Inness: that too much detail could obscure the truth or essence of a work of art. The philosopher wrote:

Empirical science is apt to cloud the sight, and by the very knowledge of functions and processes to bereave the student of the manly contemplation of the whole…. I cannot greatly honor minuteness in details.

In his essay, “Art,” Emerson even made this point specifically about landscape paintings:

Thus in our fine arts, not imitation but creation is the aim. In landscapes the painter should give the suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose of nature he should omit and give us only the spirit and splendor.

From the 1860s on, Inness sought in his art to express a subjective and poetic response to nature. No longer, like other painters, would he try to reproduce the world’s outer appearances; rather he would seek to capture the inner ascent of the soul in the presence of nature and the divine. Inness now felt free to abandon the common norms of representational painting; at last he could unleash color, perspective, and brushwork and make them serve expression rather than description. “When I tried to do my duty and paint faithfully I didn’t get much,” Inness said. “When I didn’t care so much for duty I got something more or less admirable.”

Through constant experimentation over the next decades, Inness discovered a new, expressive, and unrealistic style, one without precedent in the history of American art. This radical departure in ambition stirred controversy among critics, baffling some for its “surpassing weirdness,” while leading others to praise Inness for being “recklessly experimentative.” In his paintings of these years, the palette becomes increasingly fiery and intense. Golds, reds, and blacks often predominate, giving many of the pictures a dreamy and unnatural glow. For example, in Sunset from 1892 (Montclair Art Museum) the sky burns with a luminous orange against the deep dark green of the trees in the foreground.

Inness also began to experiment with brushwork, abandoning the application of paint in tight and small strokes, as had been common among earlier American painters. Inspired in part by the example of Courbet and Rousseau, whose works he saw again on a trip to Europe in the early 1870s, he started to try all kinds of new effects: slapping on pigments with larger brushes, daubing on paint with his fingers, applying oil and then scraping it away, scratching into the picture with sticks, and so on. A friend described the painter’s method:

With a great mass of color he attacked the canvas, spreading it with incredible swiftness…with a skill and method all his own…here, there, all over the canvas, rub, rub, dig, scratch, until the very brushes seemed to rebel.

As a result of this fierce and impetuous technique, the canvases from his later years, such as The Coming Shower of 1892, often have a dash and brio far beyond that of any earlier American painting. Many of the forms represented in the pictures are hazy and elusive, and the paintings look unresolved yet alive.

Inness never constructed space in his pictures according to the norms of academic painting; even when he had tried to work in a naturalistic style earlier in his career, the perspective was often askew. In the 1870s and 1880s, he sometimes intentionally accentuated the unreal character of the space in order to heighten his paintings’ eerie effect. In the strangest of these pictures, such as Pool in the Woods from around 1890 (Montclair Art Museum), Inness includes so few markers of relative position that the foreground and middle- ground seem to shift and shimmer as if in some frightening hallucination. Describing a moment of spiritual ecstasy in the presence of the divine splendor of nature, Beecher wrote, “The whole world stood in an unnatural trance and the most familiar things looked wild and almost fearful.” The best of Inness’s paintings from his later years have something of that unsettling power.

At the beginning of his career, Inness labored more or less within the conventions of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. By the 1880s, he had found for himself a method that paralleled the contemporary revolution in art of Gauguin and Van Gogh, who, like Inness, dispensed with naturalistic limits on painting in order to create a bolder, more emotive, and more personal style. Inness’s pursuit of expressive and technical freedom was a great stimulus for younger painters, and over the next thirty years many American artists, from Albert Pinkham Ryder to Edward Steichen, were emboldened by his example.

In the last years of his life, Inness even began to work in a manner that foreshadowed the abstract sublime of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and other masters of twentieth-century art. A critic once called Inness a “modern among moderns.” The assessment is especially true of the works from the final period.

Starting around 1890 when he was nearly sixty-five, Inness conceived of a new experiment. In some of the canvases made over the next few years, he tried to strip away the attributes of picture-making in order to search for the essence of art. As can be seen in the beautiful group of late pictures on view in the show at the Clark Art Institute, such as The Home of the Heron (1891; Princeton University Art Museum; see illustration on page 8), and Eventide, Tarpon Springs, Florida (1893; Art Complex Museum, Duxbury, Massachusetts), Inness eliminated many of the traditional components of painting. He got rid of naturalistic composition, replacing the complexities of a representational painting with a grid of horizontals and verticals that are minimally descriptive of the world. He abandoned variety of color, instead trying to work with a reduced palette; sometimes he even restricted himself to different shades of one dominant tone. He dispensed almost entirely with traditional perspective, and made the space of the pictures flat or insubstantial. He eliminated the bold brushwork and the thick layers of paint that typically gave his pictures much of their depth and strength, and instead worked by staining the canvases with thin dilutions of pigment and turpentine.

Inness even surrendered what he loved most of all about making pictures: the heady sense of god-like power that came upon him while in the flow of creativity. Instead, he was now searching for stillness and peace. He was, his son tells us, trying to learn how to paint without paint. He wanted to go beyond the physical boundaries of the medium and cross into a realm of pure thought and feeling. He said to a friend, “We are limited to paint. Maybe, after we get to heaven, we shall find some other medium with which to express our thoughts on canvas.” His final paintings are startling in their purity and originality. Earlier in the century, artists wanted the sublime to appear to be awe-inspiring and sensational. Inness, by contrast, sought in his late work to give the sublime a dreamy and evanescent delicacy. These paintings are among the most deeply affecting pictures in the history of American art.

To the end, Inness was moved and inspired by the ineffable beauty of nature. His last act in life, moments before he died, was to watch the setting sun, and then reach up toward it and call out, “Oh, how beautiful.” It is an odd but telling coincidence that this should recall a passage from Emerson’s journals where the philosopher wrote, “Let us express our astonishment before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss. I will lift up my hands and say Kosmos.” For Inness, as for Emerson, it was the attempt to grasp the immanent sacred order of the universe that gave life its purpose and meaning.

Letters

Keen on Swedenborg November 6, 2008

George Inness in Montclair November 6, 2008

  1. *

    Small but Sublime: Intimate Views by Durand, Bierstadt and Inness,” March 19, 2008–February 22, 2009.

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