George Inness in Italy– and Philadelphia

Lake Nemi

I wasn’t sure I absolutely needed to see the exhibit now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, George Inness in Italy. I most enjoy the late work of Inness, painted in the U.S. and in any case not important for its depiction of an actual landscape. The Philadelphia exhibit brought me into a room showing paintings that came of two trips to Italy, each of which had a great influence on the painter’s style. I was familiar with what to me are the most impressive paintings and am well pleased to have seen them in actuality.

Similar to our early furniture, we like to think of our landscapes as purely American. In fact they are not. At no point can we completely separate traditions. Like Inness, Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School- often referred to as the first American school of painting, made two trips abroad to study in Italy. Whether we like to think so or not, that influence is in the works. [It has also just occurred to me that painting up until World War II is referred to favorably as “American,” while after World War II, when one could argue America had the greatest influence in the art world, it’s thought of as international.]

This exhibit was inspired by the recovery of Inness’s first major composition painted in Italy, Twilight on the Campagna, which had been languishing in the annals of the museum. The painting has been restored and is now displayed with Inness’s other Italian works in a beautiful and insightful exhibition.

We were lucky to walk into the room while a teacher’s talk by Assistant Curator Mark Mitchell was in progress. It was interesting to hear him talk a bit about Inness the man, who he says could speak on the topic of his work for many hours- and longer if someone should dare ask a question. He was also a social reform-minded abolitionist. Mitchell described the religion Inness practiced, Swedenborgianism, as very popular at the time, similar in appeal to transcendentalism.

Inness’s work was also well-received. Mitchell described him as being more successful than Eakins and at least as successful as Homer. In terms of being influential to the modern-era, it would be hard to understate the importance of Inness. He began to see landscapes not for their reality-but a depiction of something else-something personal and spiritual. The paintings are creating a reality. Inness said “The poetic quality is not obtained by eschewing any truths of fact or of Nature…Poetry is the vision of reality.”

Pines and Olives at Albano

Inness began by studying the old masters and experimented from there. The work of Claude Loraine, Rapael and others can be seen in his work. One can see his later style form in paintings from the second trip including Lake Nemi which takes on tonalist and spiritual qualities. Pines and Olives at Albano, which depicts a monk walking beside a garden wall, foreshadows the figures in Inness’s later paintings. Like the monk in this painting, we’re never quite sure of the solidity of their presence. According to the exhibit catalog, it doesn’t appear monks of this order ever had a monastery near Albano.

Its a curious thing, these two paintings in particular preceed the artist’s mature style and yet they remain some of his most captivating. I suspect I’ve been witness to the discovery by the artist of what he was painting and why he was painting it.

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