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george inness and the science of landscape

21 september 2013

George Inness (1825-94) has long been one of my favorite artists, but it's not easy to explain why. Almost all of his paintings are landscapes, and most of the settings are American. They're not spectacular like the landscapes of Frederic Church, or didactic like those of Thomas Cole, or both, as with some of Asher Durand's. Inness didn't belong to the Hudson River School, or indeed to any school at all. He seemed innocent of politics, though he worked right through some of the most contentious eras of American history. His career was long and showed marked development in manner, but early or late, he favored a long view of a country scene with a definite (but often indistinct) horizon in the middle, a lowering sky, and curious colors. If there are people or animals in an Inness picture, they are generic and incidental. He worked in New England, New York, and New Jersey, with the requisite trips to Europe that were part of the formation of American artists in his day, but it's hard to associate him with any particular place, except perhaps with a North Jersey that has been largely paved over since he painted there. Most American museums of any size have a single George Inness on display; his work is spread around the continent, defying concentration or summation. A fair amount of it is still in private collections, and he was so prolific that even today you can probably buy a small, "minor" Inness for the price of a new car if you set your mind to it. And if you do, you will have something at once highly representative and highly marginal. Inness's work seems overwhelmingly oblique, a corpus without a center: there's no one big Inness picture that everybody knows about and makes pilgrimages to see. Yet his work is unmistakable when you pass that single Inness in the museum.

I was drawn initially to Inness by the light in his paintings: the light in his sky, and the light diffused through the vegetation that covers his foregrounds. It seems to me to catch the ephemeral quality of certain moments in an American day (why specifically American is also hard to describe). The colors in a typical Inness landscape are weird: it's as if he mixed and mixed and remixed paints to achieve shades that nobody had ever thought of committing to canvas in order to represent nature, and yet once you see them, you're convinced you did see that color once, for a moment on some lost afternoon. And in fact, as Rachael DeLue shows in George Inness and the Science of Landscape, Inness composed his paintings in exactly that way, painting and repainting them till he practically dropped from exhaustion, and the pictures had to be forcibly removed by their buyers. This might account for some of their eldritch quality, and for the sense you sometime gets that only you and George Inness shared this special experience of a given shade of light.

Inness, as DeLue explains (119-21), preferred landscapes that included some measure of human habitation and cultivation; he preferred modes that old masters (particularly Claude Lorrain) had worked in long before. Yet he was mostly uninterested in human-built structures or in the human form itself. His paintings are thus allusive (DeLue's term) at several levels: they refer to other paintings, they suggest human activities that they don't portray. People, in Inness, are mere suggestions. He was not a humanist; he was interested in spiritual truths. Yet DeLue shows that Inness was intent on arriving at spiritual truths scientifically.

Much of George Inness and the Science of Landscape is concerned with trying to explicate Inness's science in its 19th-century context, and frankly, this is a near-futile task. Inness was convinced that he had obtained extreme precision of thought and method, but was unable to demonstrate exactly what he had achieved. Inness, and his contemporary peers and critics, wrote in florid, impressionistic terms about painting. Even attention as serious and sympathetic as DeLue's is hard-pressed to make their ideas coherent. Inness's reach exceeded his grasp, you might say. And, after all, what's a heaven for?

The term "impressionistic" suggests that Inness himself participated in the Impressionist movement, but as you might predict, he despised Impressionists.

When people tell me that the painter sees nature in the way the Impressionists paint it, I say 'Humbug'! from the lie of intent to the lie of ignorance. Monet induces the humbug of the first form and the stupidity of the second. (205)
I don't quite understand the criticism, but I get its force and its direction. The phrase "anxiety of influence" suggests itself here; artists save their worst venom for peers who have done what they'd like to have done. Because of course Monet's work, for instance "Autumn Effect at Argenteuil" (1873, Courtauld Gallery)

isn't anything like Inness's "Autumn in Montclair" (1894, private collection)

J.M.W. Turner was also a major influence, and Inness was just as scathing about Turner:
Parts of Turner's pictures are splendid specimens of realization, but their effect is destroyed by other parts which are full of falsity and claptrap. Very rarely, if ever, does Turner give the impression of the real that nature gives. (61)
But of course, if Inness's work is very much like anybody else's, it's like that of certain impressionists, and above all that of Turner. For example, here's Turner's "Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus" (1831, Victoria & Albert Museum)

and here's Inness's "Sunset over the Sea" (1887, Brooklyn Museum)

I'm not even going to try very hard to press this parallel; Google a page of Turners and a page of Innesses, and you'll have more evidence than I can display here.

Inness had a deep mystical faith that neither Turner nor Monet held or expressed. DeLue traces the roots of Inness's spirtuality into the gauzier realms of Swedenborgian thought. Inness, at one point, contemplated making his spiritual aims explicit; he painted a typological triptych (of which only fragments survive), but it was not a success by anyone's standards, including Inness's. He went back to landscapes, and to the idea that just beyond the light at the heart of his horizons was some ineffable truth about the Universe.

And though one can't explain it, you get the sense that Inness knew what he was talking about – or certainly at least knew what he was painting about. DeLue is good on the uncanny, discordant elements of paintings like "The Storm" (1885, Reynolda House Museum): its scratchy surface, its floating images, its disproportions – and for all that, its sense that Nature is about to burst into some hitherto undreamt-of forms.

And with that, lection is ten years old – or was, about two weeks ago; I just didn't post any notice of its birthday then.

DeLue, Rachael Ziady. George Inness and the Science of Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.