Early Autumn, Montclair, George Inness
The link is to a zoomable version on the Google Art Project; there is a high-resolution downloadable version on Wikimedia Commons; the original is in the Delaware Art Museum (which unfortunately doesn’t have its collection online, though there is more on the Google Art Project).
This is one of my favorite paintings in the world.
I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and still live nearby in Pennsylvania, and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting this painting at the Delaware Art Museum on a frequent basis since I was a teenager.
I still find it striking and enlightening every time I see it, and as my understanding of painting grows, so does my appreciation for George Inness and what he accomplished.
This painting — a somewhat idealized representation of Montclair, New Jersey, where Inness lived at the end of his career — is a tour-de-force of value relationships, color temperature, brush handling, and especially edges.
Inness was a master of soft edges and suggestion in painting, allowing your mind to participate and fill in what he has only suggested, but he was equally adept at bringing hard edges to the fore when it suited his composition.
Here, he uses both hard and soft edges with dramatic effect. The sapling on the left barely seems to exist; the dark tree toward the center has a more forceful presence, and main branch of the central tree — where Inness wants your eye to go — has an almost three-dimensional extension into the space in front of the canvas. (Actually, that branch really is three-dimensional in the physical thickness of the paint.)
Look at the difference in the brush handling across the composition; everything outside of the primary focal area is diffuse — almost a textural variation on Da Vinci’s sfumato — while the main tree is so painterly and tactile it’s a joy to follow the brush marks with your eye. The paint looks to have been applied by natural forces in layers of mist and strikes of lightning.
Inness has broken compositional “rules” here with casual aplomb; the main subject is smack in the center of the painting and the horizon divides the canvas in half vertically — almost as if he was taking a dare to break those assumed norms of things you “don’t do” in composition.
The colors are equally remarkable. There are a few relatively high-chroma oranges, but in general the colors are muted and the palette reserved, yet the color relationships make the entire painting feel rich and vibrant.
The painting is a delight, and I think a fulfillment of the goal Inness had of conveying the Swedeborgian doctrine that the spiritually divine could be found in the contemplation of the natural world.
The season is deliberately transitional, and the painting as a whole suggests that the weather could be either sunny or cloudy; the landscape contains both natural and man-made elements and the central tree is in both light and shadow. Everything is binary — Summer and Autumn, dark and light, hard and soft, muted and colorful, suggested and represented, traditional and modern.
I’ll also point out that the painting’s subject is Autumn, and that today is the Autumnal Equinox, which — like the Vernal Equinox at the start of Spring — is a point in the Earth’s yearly journey around the sun at which the sun’s rays strike the tilted Earth directly on the equator, rather than above or below it.
Everything in balance.