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Art History 101 :: George Inness

George Inness

It’s no secret that my boss, Linda Wehrli, is a huge fan of landscapes, especially by American painters. When it came time to write the next Art History 101 blog, artist George Inness, who is often referred to as “the father of American landscape painting” was a natural choice.

I must admit, I had not heard of this remarkable landscape painter. Blogging about him was a fantastic way to immerse myself in his story and paintings. I’m so glad to have had this opportunity and look forward to sharing my findings with you. His lovely paintings featured in this blog are courtesy of georgeinness.org.

My first thought was that George Inness might have been an impressionist painter. I was wrong. He lived from 1825 to 1894, just before the Impressionist era had begun.

Inness’ paintings portray beautiful light and atmosphere in a style much different from the landscapes of the impressionists. Biographers describe it best – his landscapes definitely reveal the influence of the Old Masters (Holbein, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer and Rembrandt, to name a few), the Hudson River school, the Barbizon school, and, surprisingly, the theology of the Christian mystic and spiritual teacher, Emanuel Swedenborg! Inness embraced the idea that mystical experience shapes one’s perspective toward nature. There’s definitely a spiritual feeling to his paintings. More on that later in the blog.

Linda often remarks to her art students that an artists’ education says a lot about their work. Innes’ art education is quite unique. When he was only 14 years old, he studied for several months with the traveling painter, John Jesse Barker. As a teen, Inness worked as a map engraver in New York City. It was during this time that he caught the attention of French landscape painter Regis Francois Gignoux, with whom he subsequently studied.

Throughout the mid-1840s Inness attended classes at the National Academy of Design, and studied the work of artists Thomas Cole and Asher Durand of the Hudson River School. Inness once stated, “If these two can be combined, I will try.” And that he did! During his studies, Inness opened up his own studio in New York City.

A couple years later in 1851, a patron named Ogden Haggerty sponsored Inness’ first trip to Europe to paint and study. (#Jealous!) Inness spent more than a year in Rome, Italy during which time he rented a studio above that of painter William Page.

During trips to Paris in the early 1850s, Inness became influenced by the artists working in the Barbizon School of France. Barbizon landscapes were noted for their darker palette, looser brushwork, and emphasis on mood. Inness quickly became the leading American exponent of Barbizon-style painting, which he developed into a highly personal style. In 1854 his son George Inness Jr., who also became a landscape painter of note, was born in Paris.
 
In the mid-1850s, Inness was commissioned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to create paintings which documented the progress of DL&W’s growth in early Industrial America. So cool! The Lackawanna Valley, painted in 1855, represents the railroad’s first roundhouse at Scranton, Pennsylvania, and integrates technology and wilderness within an observed landscape.
Ironically, Inness would eventually shun the industrial presence in favor of countryside or agrarian scenes. He would also produce much of his mature work in the studio, drawing on his visual memory to produce scenes that were often inspired by specific places.

The work of the 1860s and 1870s often tended toward the panoramic and picturesque, with cloud-laden and threatening skies, and included views of Inness’ native country (Autumn Oaks, 1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Catskill Mountains, 1870, Art Institute of Chicago). Linda commented on how some of Inness’ palettes resembled those of the British painter, J.M.W. Turner. Good point.

The work during this time also included scenes inspired by various travels overseas, especially to Italy and France (The Monk, 1873, Addison Gallery of American Art and Etretat, 1875, Wadsworth Atheneum). In terms of composition, precision of drawing, and the emotive use of color, these paintings placed Inness among the best and most successful landscape painters in America.

As I mentioned earlier, Inness’ art portrayed the influence of the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. What attracted him to the theology was the notion that everything in nature had a relationship with something spiritual and so received an “influx” from God in order to continually exist.

Another influence upon Inness’ thinking was William James, also an adherent to Swedenborgianism. In particular, Inness was inspired by James’ idea of consciousness as a “stream of thought”, as well as his ideas concerning how mystical experience shapes one’s perspective toward nature. The mystical component manifested in his art through a more abstracted handling of shapes, softened edges, and saturated colors.

His keen interest in spiritual and emotional considerations did not prevent Inness from undertaking a scientific study of color, nor a mathematical, structural approach to composition, though.

According to his son, George Inness, Jr., Inness died in Scotland in 1894 while viewing the sunset. He threw his hands up into the air and exclaimed, “My God! oh, how beautiful!”, fell to the ground, and died minutes later. How moving and apropos that Inness passed away gazing at the very view he loved to paint!

I hope this Art History 101 blog inspired you to learn more about this remarkable American artist.
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Art History 101 reviews selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an artist you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support! 

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