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Sunset Walk to the Village

Documentation Signed
Documentation Notes Signed verso on back of canvas
Origin United States
Period 19th Century
Materials Oil on canvas
Dimensions
W. 15 in; H. 12 in;
W. 38.1 cm; H. 30.48 cm;
Condition Good.
Description George Inness and the Visionary Landscape" at the National Academy of Design

Submitted By RAYMOND J. STEINER and written for ART TIMES October 2003

AS WITH ANY artist worthy of the title, George Inness (18251894) is not easily summed up. Often associated with the Hudson River School, he was, in fact, aesthetically in opposition to the large, detailed canvases which characterized the work of such painters as Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), two major representative painters of that group. Others see him as a transplanted member of the French Barbizon School, more in tune with their less grandiose, more intimate landscapes of homely, domesticated scenes of rural France. Still others as the title of this exhibition* indicates see him as a visionary theorist, painting dreamy landscapes fraught with symbolic messages and meanings. And, like any artist, these and many other attempts at pigeonholing might well fit part of the man and his work.

However, few serious artists few persons for that matter are simple creatures, one-dimensional beings whose creative output reflect one vision, one style, one statement. The current exhibition of approximately 40 of Inness' paintings at the National Academy of Design Museum in New York City offers an opportunity to reassess both the man and his work.

In spite of the emphasis on his "visionary" propensities that this exhibition sets forth, by all accounts George Inness was a man of many faces. Hailed by his contemporaries as the greatest landscape painter of his time, his colleagues and peers seem generally to have nothing but high praise for him and there were in fact a great many moved to record their opinions for posterity. Although generally laudatory, even a casual glance would reveal no one-sided view of Inness. Complex, deeply spiritual, dedicated to his chosen life as a painter, Inness was still worldly enough to enjoy his status as America's "greatest" painter of landscapes and to know how to further his career. Obviously respected as both painter and teacher, one is yet left with an elusive portrait of the man behind the public persona.

Although often characterized as self-taught, George Inness cultivated his natural talents for depiction by close observation and careful study of the masters his contemporaries as well as those from the past. An inherent love of nature seems to have automatically drawn him to landscape painting and, indeed, if the few figures, which appear in the present exhibition, are any indication, the depiction of the human form was not his forte. Though we may attribute this to some intentional purpose connected with his "spiritual" predilections, when included they are summarily sketched in, seldom given the same amount of attention to detail as found, say, in his renditions of trees, or fields, or bodies of water. Though, a "people person" to his students and colleagues, Inness, at least when it came to his art, appears to have felt much more at home when dealing with the non-human elements of nature.

At first attracted to and influenced by the Hudson River School of artists (a fact borne out by his early work), he soon found their over-blown, generalized views of the American landscape foreign to his own bent. A study-trip to Europe where he could view the masters at first hand and especially to see the work of the small band of landscape artists summering at Barbizon opened a way for him to make a more personal statement about landscape. Particularly impressed with the work of Jean Corot (1796-1875) and Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), his paintings became less detailed, with deliberately loose brushstrokes and chiaroscuro blurring clear demarcations of distance, making it difficult to distinguish between foreground and background, sky and horizon, in his paintings.

A major break with his early Hudson River School tendencies was to paint a nature less untamed, less raw than that of Cole's, Albert Bierstadt's (1830-1902) or Church's America. Inness felt a need to show more human interaction with nature, a symbiotic relationship that would deepen into mystical significance when, in the 1860's, he came under the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg's (1688-1772) theosophical teachings especially that of his belief in the unity of God, Nature and Man. Thomas Cole, the "father" of the Hudson River School, and his followers also attempted to show the hand of God in Nature, but it was a Divine Presence that revealed itself in sublime grandiosity rather than in any subtle and intimate connection with man. This was unacceptable to Inness who began to see Nature as the vital and mystical link between man and his Creator. At first, his early canvases merely showed man's ingress into his natural surroundings: a farmhouse, cleared forestlands, or plowed fields.

In opposition to his Hudson River School contemporaries, he wanted to paint what he called "civilized" landscapes that showed both God's and man's hand working in tandem. Later canvases would become less explicit, more amorphous, painted in a free style that would sometimes be called "poetic" by his fellows. When human figures did appear they were only suggested, depicted as integral parts of nature rather than as intruders. Who the figures were was less important than that they showed their belongingness their oneness with the landscape. It appears as if by making the figures "featureless" it would help him to blend them more easily into the inchoate swirl of Nature.)

Much has been written about Inness' Swedenborgian mysticism a great deal, in fact, by the painter himself leaving many with the impression of an introspective, ethereal man who mooned around the countryside. Yet, as Nicolai Cikovsky once wrote in an essay entitled "George Inness: Sense of Sensibility," Inness "smoked cigars, drank (sometimes even to excess), swore, and struggled to control his 'carnal lusts' and 'sensual appetites."**

He was, in short, a man completely equipped (and handicapped) with all that that term implies. As "mystical" as you may feel that a belief in the unity between God, Man and Nature is, Inness was far from some dreamy-eyed follower of the latest fad. Transcendentalism might have caught up the period's best minds (cf., e.g., Inness' contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and their fellow Brahmins in New England) and the teachings of Swedenborg might have been right up their alley, but Inness appears to have accepted little at face value especially when it came to his painting. If he eschewed the finicky detail so dear to the Hudson River School, he was equally disdainful of Impressionism with its ever-threatening impulse to lose detail altogether.

He wanted to paint landscapes that were neither literal transcriptions nor indistinguishable blobs of color. What he strove for were paintings that avoided "thought alone or of feeling alone" and attempted to produce canvases that revealed a combination of "will and understanding" (from a letter by Inness to Ripley Hitchcock dated March 23, 1884). Stated otherwise, his vaunted mysticism never quite overshadowed his logical faculties. Perhaps more important than what he learned from the Barbizons insofar as painting landscapes was concerned, was his absorption of French rationality their ability to combine thought and feeling, allowing the "opposites" to temper each other.

Inness' real soul-mates in painting God-filled (God-suggesting might better fit his stated intent) landscapes are perhaps to be found neither in France nor America but in Germany, in such 18th/19th century romantics as Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Although there is little similarity between Inness' and Runge's landscapes, that German artist's belief in the unity of God, Man and Nature and especially his color theories wherein he ascribes to each hue a symbolic significance, might have afforded both artists many hours of fruitful conversation. Inness himself often expounded on his own color theories to his students and, in essence, they did not markedly differ from those of Runge. With Friedrich on the other hand, it is when we compare their paintings that we discover common ground few would question the attribution of Friedrich's name, for instance, to Inness' "Christmas Eve" (1866), a dark, moody and foreboding picture that could well have flowed from the great German Romantic's brush.

Another similarity the two artists share was their propensity to show only the backs of figures as they melded into the landscape, both artists emphasizing man's essential oneness with Nature rather than his personal distinction from Her. Even more telling, however, is Friedrich's purposeful disregard for linear persepctive, obfuscating distance much as did Inness, and his non-naturalistic handling of color, again, a common practice of Inness.

Recollections of Inness and comparisons of his work with others notwithstanding no matter how factual or relevant the artist must ultimately be understood and judged by the body of work left behind. The present exhibition handsomely presented and hung in several galleries offers an opportunity to do just that. It was as a painter (and not as a spiritual theorist), however, that Inness built his reputation and it was his preferred medium of expression. Over and above anything else, what is expressed is his love or rather his reverence for Nature.

Whatever the style and the exhibition covers the whole range of his career, from the 1850's to the 1890's one is struck by his struggle to capture the essence of what Nature meant to him. If his brushstroke remains unremarkable (no overuse of heavily laid-on impasto though used to good effect in "Moonrise" (1888) no flourishing signature), one gradually sees a loosening of the wrist, a studied attempt to suggest rather than to delineate in short, a conscious move to be a painter rather than a draftsman. He claimed not to want to paint the "hieroglyphs" of Nature but to attempt a depiction of its impact on his (our) senses. It had to be "real" enough to recognize as landscape, yet "vague" enough to suggest its Divine source. In his words,

"When John saw the vision of the Apocalypse, he saw it. He did not see emasculation, or weakness, or gaseous representation. He saw things, and those things represented an idea." So much for the airy-fairy. He wanted his landscapes to be seen as landscapes yet understood as Divine revelations. For this viewer, he pulled it off most of the time. It is difficult not to experience the quiet majesty of such paintings as "Hackensack Meadows, Sunset" (1859) or The Huntsman (1859) or Summer, Montclair (New Jersey Landscape) (1891). Pictures such as Sunset Glow (1883), The Home of the Heron (1893), and Sunset at Montclair (1892) his so-called "Tonalist" paintings are, for me, less convincing as manifestations of the Divine than they are as examples of mood pieces, reflective more of man i.e., George Inness than of God.

One of the ironies, it seems to me, is that if Inness was attempting to show his viewers the essential link between man and nature that he did so less with his "visionary" paintings what we might term his "inscapes" than he did with his more straightforward renditions of the American landscape. For this viewer, the less accessible a picture is i.e. indistinct the less I am able to be drawn into its "message" thus, if I am meant to see myself as part of the trinity of God, man and Nature, I am effectively shut out by a so-called Inness "visionary" painting. At no time, however, do I experience a false note, a dishonesty in Inness' attempts at sharing his vision not even in his somewhat "stagy" dramas of orange sunsets (though I would make an exception with the cloyingly histrionic The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1867)). Inness had a supreme sense of composition and an uncanny ability to render aerial perspective. His "atmospheres" can often seem actually moisture-laden, tangibly "there." And though he sometimes played fast and loose with local color (undoubtedly part of his color theory), somehow the very unreality of the hues lends them a truth that escapes logic.

Yet, total reliance on the pictures as avenues of access to the artist can also be dangerous. As Cikovsky points out in the essay quoted above, too many have taken the unfinished late paintings found in his studio as mature and finished products, basing unfounded assumptions and deductions on them. Although many of these might fit one's pre-conceived conception of Inness as a spiritualist or, God forbid!, even a pre-cursor of modernist abstraction one cannot fairly make judgments on unfinished canvases. This is especially true of a painter like Inness who deemed "unfinished" many canvases that he did allow to leave his studio, at times tracking them down into buyer's houses to make additional changes and additions. An inveterate tinkerer, he felt no qualms about "touching up" the canvases of students and colleagues as well as those of his own, convinced that a few extra dabs and scumbles would improve them. When we recall his disdain of paintings that he called "intellectual dishwater" or "gaseous representation," we can well imagine his assessment of his own unfinished canvases and what he may think of those who claim them as his "mature" work.

But there are enough paintings here to make your own judgments. At bottom, whether or not you find God in Inness' paintings will depend on whether or not you can find Him (or Her) in yourself.

*George Inness and the Visionary Landscape (thru Dec 28): National Academy of Design Museum, 1083 Fifth Ave. at 89th St., NYC (212) 369-4880. A catalogue of the same name by Adrienne Baxter Bell, and published by George Braziller, Inc. is available:

**(See catalogue for George Inness: Presence of the Unseen (A Centennial Commemoration): The Hudson River Museum of Westchester, Summer of 1995.
Styles / Movements Barbizon/Tonalism
Incollect Reference Number 417645
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