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…

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