George Inness

George Inness
At a time when his fellow Hudson River painters were searching for the most wild, untamed and and dramatic landscape subjects they could find (or sometimes combine and invent, in the case of Frederic Church), George Inness chose to paint settled and cultivated lands, the farms and fields in which both God and man had made their mark.

Inness started his career painting in a style in keeping with the other Hudson River School artists, but his trips to Europe exposed him to the artists of the Barbizon School of France, which changed his palette and approach. Inness eventually eclipsed the Hudson River School painters and was regarded as the finest American landscape artist.

In his later career, he was exposed to an influence of another kind that also changed his painting dramatically. He became enthralled with the theological philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, philosopher and Christian mystic who believed (among other things) in a direct relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds. Inness took Swedenborg’s model of “as above, so below” to heart as a belief that the divine could be revealed by contemplation of the natural world, and attempted to convey that divine essence in his paintings.

His later work is loose, fresh, painterly and shares characteristics with the Barbizon School, some of the Symbolist painters, and even the Impressionists, but is uniquely his own. Although he disliked Impressionism, Inness shared some of their immediacy, attention to nature, qualities of paint handling and enthusiasm for working en plein air, although Inness finished his works in the studio.

The paintings from his later career diverge from realism and have a poetic quality that is hard to describe. Inness searched for the emotion in the scene before him and tried to represent that, more than the mere reconstruction of the scene’s superficial appearance. There is often a feeling in Inness paintings of something impending, waiting to be revealed, as in the image above, Early Autumn, Montclair, which I’ve had the pleasure of “growing up with”, seeing it often over the years at the Delaware Art Museum.

George Inness’ landscapes are not so much pictures to be looked at as invitations to look deeper, or what Inness called “the visible upon the invisible”.


6 Replies to “George Inness”

  1. I don’t think that the poetic quality in the late work of Inness is any more difficult to describe than it is to experience. I enjoy the fact that he is less concerned with the specifics of detail and more concerned with the ephemeral glow of a certain late afternoon (often autumnal) light. He has invested landscapes with the same play of complimentary colors (reds verus greens) and softened edges that Giorgione invested in figures five centuries earlier in Venice and, like Giorgione, he seems to enjoy teasing us with a suggestion of mystery or, as you suggest, something waiting to be revealed. The leaves on the little sapling at left in “Early Evening, Montclair” seem to be spun of the same mystical substance as that glowing reflection on the clouds. And here as in so many of Inness’ paintings one finds colors like the emerald green in his foreground, a color that seems not to be so much obesrved as perhaps symbolic (and he uses it again and again in his late paintings the way a poet enjoys using a favorite metaphor.) One looks at a late painting by Inness and one wonders, “Did he really see this? Was there for a moment such a glow on the clouds in early evening? Did the light really hit the trunk of the tree that way? At what point did the visual recording of his experience end and the lyrical poetry of his describing it begin?

  2. Daniel,

    Thanks for your preceptive, and poetic, comments.

    My guess (and it’s only that, of course) is that he probably saw the scene much like this in terms of composition, and captured it on location, but added his own “poetic” colors and lighting in his final work in the studio.

  3. I learned about Inness while I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

    The museum usually has 6-8 of his works on display. Their holdings range across his career, including two extraordinary late pieces.

    By the time I graduated, he was solidly in place as my favorite landscape painter.

  4. I have stood many times in locations of inspiring composition, when I really wanted to see the colors and emotions of my own feelings beyond what my eyes perceived. I think that’s what George Inness experienced when he walked around those fields and forests and farms.
    He must have made notes about his emotions and then gone to his studio to put paint on his canvases.

    I’m convinced his accomplishments came from the Swedenborgian application of his heart and mind, not his eyes.

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