Newburgh, New York
Bridge of Allen, Stirling, Scotland
Summary of George Inness
George Inness's atmospheric, illustrative compositions represent a vital contribution to nineteenth-century North American landscape painting. At the same time Inness is noteworthy for his resistance to many of the generic trappings associated with that era. Whereas contemporaries such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church forged a distinctively American approach to the Romantic landscape, Inness was interested in exploring and turning to new effect the European Romantic origins of their work. His early works, in their soft brushwork and emphasis of light and tonal effects, suggest the proto-Impressionism of Camille Corot, and were directly influenced by the French Barbizon School. Later works take on the bold painterly effects of J.M.W. Turner. At the same time, Inness was a recalcitrant and obdurately individualistic figure, his fierceness vital in ensuring the singularity of his work. He remains a potent force in the history of modern American painting.
- While the pioneers of the Hudson River School struck out from European Romanticism to forge a distinctively North American brand of landscape painting, George Inness remained a committed Europhile throughout his life: a commitment which, ironically, made him amongst the most unique painters of the Hudson River generation. Whereas the artists of that school set out across the wider American continent in search of new subject-matter, George Inness - who was actually born in the Hudson Valley - sought inspiration in the classical ruins and hillsides of Italy, and the dense forests of rural France. In this sense, his work arguably registers as contribution to mid-century European Naturalism as well as the era of the classic American landscape.
- George Inness's landscape paintings offer us a cultural space as much as a natural space. The vogue in nineteenth-century American painting was for vast canvases in which all human activity was excised from the scene to suggest an untamed wilderness. But Inness was more concerned with expressing the interaction of humankind with the landscapes which they made their own. In this sense, his paintings represent a uniquely optimistic view of social progress in the nineteenth century: they are monuments to a process of industrialization and urbanization that, it was felt, might bring about a new era of harmony between humanity and nature.
- Throughout his life Inness remained committed to studio working, and to an idea of the landscape painting as a synthetic composition, bringing together elements of the real and the fictional, which was rejected by painters such as Frederic Edwin Church. Though Church's landscapes were as imaginative and - in a positive sense - artificial as Inness's, Inness was unique in foregoing the cult of fidelity to nature and plein air technique that defined much of the Hudson River generation.
Biography of George Inness
George Inness was born in 1825 near Newburgh, in the mid-Hudson River valley. He was the fifth of thirteen children born to Clarissa and John Inness, a farmer and grocer. The family moved to Newark, New Jersey when he was five and he was encouraged to read and learn about art. His father wanted Inness to become a grocer but he had other ideas, and at the age of 14 he took up drawing lessons. His father was well-off and could provide for his son's teaching but nonetheless his early artistic education ended here. Inness was a small child and suffered from epilepsy, which he cited as the reason for his lack of a formal education. But he was reportedly inspired by one of his father's books on art, which he would read and re-read, especially fascinated by the paintings of Claude Lorrain.
Important Art by George Inness
This is one of George Inness's earliest pieces, produced while he was still a struggling young artist for the first president of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Inness was paid $75 for the composition, which includes a mixture of pastoral and industrial elements. A picturesque scene of fields on the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania is cut through with the tracks of the growing railroad. In the foreground we see stumps of trees felled to make way for progress, and the figure of a reclining man looking on at the approaching train. (The scene was in fact partially invented: Inness was aggrieved to be asked to add more tracks than existed, exaggerate the prominence of the roundhouse, and paint the company logo on the train.) Two sets of track meet in the middle, leading the eye to the steam engine and its roundhouse beyond. Beyond this, the eye is drawn to the steeple of a church, picked out in black beyond the white locomotive steam, while further afield the gentle Pennsylvanian hills are rendered in calming blues and purples.
For its unique status to be appreciated this work should be compared with prominent landscape paintings of the time. Two years later Frederic Edwin Church would produce his majestic Niagara, a work which shows no human history, no industry, and no progress, merely the unfettered power of nature at work. Inness by contrast chose - or was paid - to depict human civilization in nature, and as such, the bucolic Lackawanna Valley is an ambiguous work. The scene and color palette are calm and harmonious, but the scarred tree trunks in the foreground, emerging from the earth almost like marks of disease, raise questions about the artist's message. This synthesis of natural and manmade elements predicates the work of Precisionist artists such as Charles Sheeler.
The work has become one of Inness's most famous, but it went through a period of neglect. It was lost and the artist amazingly found it years later collecting dust in a curiosity shop in Mexico City. He brought it for a few dollars and gleefully brought it home. The curator Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. described it as "a great and compelling painting,...The Lackawanna Valley is a masterpiece not because of its subject, but because it is painted with such sensitivity and authority, such beauty and power."
This work, like The Lackawanna Valley, depicts the emerging North-American steam train network, but the prominence of the locomotive is far more diminished. He we see the Delaware Water Gap on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the foreground, the rocks and grasses are darkened by cloud-cover, which are luminously rendered above, predicating the effects of Tonalism. The work also hints at the effects of Impressionism; although Inness would dismiss the school on a trip to France 13 years later, this work partly comprises a delicate study of light in the style of European proto-Impressionists such as Corot. A rainbow arcs from the earth to the left of the canvas, while the drizzle and mist are rendered in glazes of white and yellow as rain falls on the Kittatinny Mountains. In the flat, tranquil water cows wallow, while figures bob on a raft beyond, up the Delaware River. Houses are picked out among the trees while a small dark train steams out of the canvas to the left. Again, we see the contrast of man and earth, nature and machine, working together in quiet harmony.
Inness painted this scene more than any other subject throughout his career. Critics have suggested that for the young artist the scene presented a quintessential image of human progress. As Cikovsky stated, "[i]ts combination of natural beauty and the railroad, rafts and felled trees that exemplify human enterprise made it a pictorial type of definite meaning." In this rendering of the scene Innes broke from the carefully executed attention to detail which became associated with the Hudson River School, showing his desire to explore more painterly techniques, and the autonomous qualities of color.
In retrospect, the work seems rich with the combined influences of Dutch landscape painting and the expressive brushwork of the French Barbizon school, a movement that had a huge influence on the artist. Corot was cited by Inness as one of the finest landscape artists in existence, and his influence here is clear. As the cultural historian James Thomas Flexner put it, "[h]owever American [Inness's] work would have looked in France, it looked very French in America."
Inness continued to battle the artistic norms promoted by the Hudson River School into the middle years of his career, as exemplified by this large and lush canvas. Favoring the pastoral over the grandiose, Inness renders Peace and Plenty in soft brushstrokes of copper, gold, and green, heralding the beginnings of the Tonalist movement as he carefully plays with color and composition to suggest spiritual harmony. Here we see workers setting down their tools at the end of a long day of harvesting. The fruits of their labors, sheaths of wheat tethered and piled, shine in the warm golden twilight. Inness again brings together nature and industry, with the enveloping glow of the sunset, hidden behind the central tree, uniting the different elements of the scene. The slow-moving river, the distant houses, and the blue and pink sky, all convey a sense of peace, a mood emphasized by Inness's use of enriched pigments.
If works such as The Delaware Water Gap represent the influence of European mid-century landscape painting, Peace and Plenty is strikingly reminiscent of early-nineteenth-century British Romantic landscape painting; John Constable seems a particularly suitable point of reference. In terms of cultural-historical resonances, meanwhile, the work was painted towards the end of the civil war, and seems to reflect the slowly emerging mood of a nation at peace.
The curator Leo Mazow offers a detailed, schematic reading of the work, suggesting that it reflects three different views of history: cyclical, millennial, and progressive. Firstly, the painting alludes to the cyclical view of history offered in Genesis, which presents alternating states of feast and famine, but it also references millennial, Swedenborgen notions of a 'New Jerusalem' or promised land that could be forged on American soil. Finally, Inness codifies a progressive view of the advent of industrialization, that he felt, in contrast to some of his Hudson River School contemporaries, might herald a new era of civility, defined by the peaceful coexistence of man and nature.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on George Inness
- A History of American Tonalism: Crucible of American ModernismBy David Adams Cleveland
- George InnessOur PickBy Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. and Michael Quick
- George Inness: A Catalogue RaisonnéBy Michael Quick
- George Inness and the Science of LandscapeBy Rachael Ziady DeLue
- George Inness and the Visionary LandscapeOur PickBy Adrienne Baxter Bell
- George Inness in Italyby Mark D. Mitchell and Judy Dion
- George Inness: The Man and His Art (Classic Reprint)By Elliot Dangerfield
- George Inness: Writings and reflections on art and philosophyOur PickEdited by Adrienne Baxter Bell
- George Innes: At the Heart of NatureOur PickWashington Post / June 22, 1986
- George Inness' works highlighted by his striking views of natureBy Dan Bischoff / The Star Ledger / November 13, 2011
- Happy Birthday to George Inness, America's Great Nineteenth-Century Artist-PhilosopherOur PickBy Margaret C. Conrad / Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art / May 2, 2016
- Niagara by George Inness: Familiar and StrangeOur PickBy Alexander Jackson / Smithsonian American Art Museum / April 2, 2019
- The Evolution of American Landscape ArtBy Benjamin Genocchio / The New York Times / January 9, 2010
- The Genius of George InnessBy Andrew Butterfield / The New York Review of Books / September 25, 2008
- A "Grand Tour" of the Hudson River School at the New-York Historical Society
- A New Look at Impressionism: Millet and the Painters of Barbizon
- An examination of George Inness's Home at Montclair (1892)
- Exploration of the Fine Arts: Tonalists' History and Techniques
- George Inness: Peace and Plenty in Perth AmboyDocumentary by John Dyke on painter George Inness
- Rachael DeLue on The American LandscapeLecture