Breathe In, We May Not Be Here Again

“Eden was; it will not be again. We must work our way to Paradise.” George Inness

Summer Foliage, George Inness, Dallas Museum of Art

The first painting collected by the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery, which later became the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was Approaching Storm by George Inness. The painting was merely a quarter century old at the time and it seems the organization had its eyes on the “masters of tomorrow” much as Andrew Carnegie did.

While this painting currently hangs in the Amon Carter Museum, another work in the region, this one at the Dallas Museum of Art, better exemplifies the artists mature style.

From 1883, Summer Foliage well conveys the mood we expect from so many tonalist landscapes. Inness says the true end of art is not to imitate a fixed material condition, but to represent a living motion. From the quote about Eden above, paintings by Inness are not a representation of a permanent landscape the way many others in the Hudson River School would lead you to take away, but a fleeting, but deep emotion that comes at once, leaves an impression then is gone.

Looking at the painting today, I noticed the colors on the right side are much more chromatic than those on the left side. A stone wall separates the two planes of the painting. Behind it is a path where we cannot enter, although someone may pass by at any moment and we may see them, and nod or wave, but not be with them.

So many of Inness’ late works contain human figures that are there, but not really there. They kind of fade out into the landscape. Today it occurred to me that these figures may be like the one I imagined may cross this path at any moment.

Where we stand in Summer Foliage, there is no way to enter the painting. The vegetation in front of us is thick and we would be unable to enter without much difficulty. Perhaps the wall in this painting is meant to separate the physical and spiritual worlds. I think that perhaps by the time of his death in 1894, these worlds were even less separable.

Inness was a follower of a fellow named Emanual Swedenborg and tried to implement Swedenborg’s view that humankind was integral to nature’s spirit and processes.

Paintings of course come to have personal meanings to individuals that may or may not have crossed the mind of the artist. That is perfectly fine in my view, and it can also be dangerous to adhere too closely to what we know about an artist even as fact. We shouldn’t, in this case, attempt to go beyond the knowledge of Inness and his devotion to Swedenborg and say this is why Inness painted the way he did.

It’s the best artist who has a keen awareness of what he does not know, and I imagine Inness to be one of these artists.

“I am seventy years of age,” Inness wrote. “and the whole study of my life has been to find out what it is that is in myself; what is this thing we call life and how does it operate.”

He died nine days later.

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