Following the Path of George Inness

“We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of us seek to convey the impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of generalizing without losing the logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies the mind.”
George Inness
The first time I really noticed a painting by George Inness was in the Butler Art Gallery in Youngstown, Ohio. The Butler has a very good collection of American Art, and I was busy looking at some Hudson River landscapes when I turned and looked straight at it. I wasn’t quite sure what drew me to it at first, it was kind of blurry, sort of like a dream I guess, or maybe more like a memory. The landscapes in the other room tried to capture the grand details of nature, sometimes untouched by humans. Here, in the foggy outline of a tree, there was clearly human communication.
An early Inness work, Lackawanna Valley (National Gallery), shows a clear departure from the Hudson River painters. It shows some trees that have fallen to human activity, a steam train and a boy sitting hillside looking yonder. It might be more in line with Currier and Ives, or akin to Norman Rockwell. I’m not sure if it communicated any sort of harmony with nature. nature is something that exists on the same level as the boy, the tree stump and the train.
On the surface this painting doesn’t have much in common with his later works, yet the idea that many parts make a one. The natural world, and the human world, and perhaps even the industrial world, are inseparable.
Inness lived and painted in Montclair, New Jersey from 1885 to 1894. Today the Montclair Art Museum has 24 of of his works, about half of which are not on display. Of those on display, five are exceptional. One is of the same era as the one in the National Gallery, another Inness considered his finest work.
When you enter the Inness Gallery at the Museum, the words “Knowledge must bow to spirit” is written above the doorway. If you turn around it’s also above the doorway from which you entered. Inness believed “the true end of art is not to imitate a fixed material condition, but to represent a living motion.” Life in art is a “subtle essence of a moving spirit. This is what satisfies the craving of the intellect, not the excesses of our senses.”
I couldn’t help but compare his work to Jasper Cropsey, who I learned today was an architect before painting full-time. Crospey’s work is engaging on one level, but the strict attention to detail somehow doesn’t travel far from the realm of a pictorial representation. An Inness painting not only speaks, but pulls you in and makes you one with it.
The Hudson River School started with Thomas Cole, and some say ended with George Inness. It’s an interesting observation that while both Cole and Inness incorporate figures, most Hudson River works showed nature absent of human presence. It’s also curious that many of Cole’s figures were allegorical, and in works by Inness, the figures are not only hard to separate from the landscape, it’s hard to tell if their presence is physical or spiritual. One painting today showed the figure of a woman. It seemed that figure was no more than a light imprint on the landscape. Like the way a human spends 75 or so years on the earth, then leaves, but much of their being remains, in the impact they had on the world, and in the minds of others.
The painting that, according to a label at the museum, Inness considered his best work is Early Autumn, Montclair. It is striking. The vibrant intense colors make it seem full of life. Yet a dark cloud hovers above. Nothing in the painting seems young. The tree is old, the barn withered and the red color of the tree in the center indicates winter is coming. Yet it’s more stunning than it has been all year. It came to my mind that the mental and creative climax of life comes near the end. It would seem that way for George Inness.
The painting I most wanted to see was Christmas Eve. The night before I described the painting as “being cold and warm at the same time.” It could be the figure in the painting is undergoing some sort of religious transformation, but from my own memory one of the best aspects of Christmas is the absolute quiet late at night. It may be cold, but there’s peace, or at least the possibility of it in our hearts.

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