Trip to Montclair Art Museum, a pilgrimage to George Inness

The trip to Montclair Art Museum was quite smooth. There is no commuter train running on the weekends, but Decamp bus runs every hour from Port Authority, Manhattan to Montclair, NJ. It only took about 40 minutes by bus to get to the museum, which is situated almost at the top of a hill, with a view of Manhattan. Down the hill, we found a Turkish restaurant (quite upscale), a WholeFood store and a few antique stores further down which unfortunately did not seem to open on Sunday.
Montclair Art Museum is not as big as Newark Museum, but it dedicates a full room to George Inness who spent his last decade in the town. Like all other townships near NYC, Montclair has lost its rural beauty that Inness favored in his paintings; but it is surprising that there is such a wonderful museum filled with some best American art.

Besides the Inness room, I was quite impressed by two paintings. Early Morning in Cold Spring, a painting by Asher Brown Durand shows a perfect balance between naturalism and romanticism. The fact that I just visited Cold Spring, NY a few weeks ago made the painting more personal to me. There is always a sense of freshness in Durand’s painting: The nature, depicted truthful but poetic, exists in harmony with minds of intellectual. In this painting, Durand was inspired by a William Cullen Byant‘s poem:

And o’er the clear still water swells
The music of the Sabbath bells

The other painting is a little gem by Edward M. Bannister, an African-American painter from Rhode Island who founded Rhode Island School of Design. Passing Storm is a vivid demonstration that by the late 19th century Barbizon has been transformed into a unique style that can almost be coined as American-born tonalism. Like Inness, Bannister said “artists become an interpreter of the infinite, subtle qualities of the spiritual ideals of nature… revealing glimpses of absolute harmony.” There are not as much details as are almost everywhere in Cropsey’s painting next to it, but I was immediately drawn to the overall effect: the untamed nature revealing its austere beauty: It is easy to understand that now I appreciate the brownish soil under still-looming sky more when working in a place that almost every inches of earth is covered by concrete and every feet of sky is blocked by skySCRAPErs.

Philip Pearlstein‘s exhibition “Objectification” takes almost half of the first floor exhibition space. The figure paintings demonstrate a sense of objectivity with cut-off faces, obtruded features. He treated the human body with the same degree of coolness as other objects from his collections that were painted with the bodies. They are marvelous in the techniques but to see Pearlstein after Inness (that’s how the exhibition rooms are arranged) is like to read a math dissertation after reading essays by Heinrich Heine. From the short video, Eric commented the way Pearlstein works on his paintings is almost the opposite to how Inness created his own imagination on the canvas.

Before we left, Eric asked how often the museum rotates the paintings by Inness since at least half of the collection are not on display. Unfortunately, we were told the rotation has not been done quite often. Maybe in the curator’s point of view, the nine paintings in that room give the audience a complete image of Inness’ style in different periods and of course his association with the town when at his peak power. We will probably go back in the near future on a Saturday when those antique stores may open. And after all, “Christmas Evening” by George Inness is Eric’s favorite painting!

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