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george inness and the visionary landscape
26 june 2021
Adrienne Baxter Bell's George Inness and the Visionary Landscape is the exhibition catalogue of a show that appeared in New York and San Diego in 2003-04. I found a copy in a used-book store in the Berkshires this spring and drove it back to Texas to read it.
On my way northeast, I had stopped in St. Louis, whose vast imposing Art Museum I'd never visited. I was sure they would have an Inness or two; nearly every major American art museum does. And they had two on display: "In the Roman Campagna" (1873) which did little for me in person, too bright and too impersonal; and "Medway, Massachusetts" (1869) which fascinated me and absorbed a considerable portion of the time I could devote to St. Louis on this trip. As in so many of Inness' canvases, realism combines with stylization; precise evocation combines with free-floating suggestion. The light that falls on this imaginary Medway must be filtered through unseen, weirdly-placed clouds, and seems to land on objects in patterns that seem incompatible with its direction and intensity.
Bell's praise of Inness is unrestrained. His late landscapes, for her, are "some of the most thought-provoking and inspiring works in the history of art" (18). Even for an Inness fanboy like me, that seems extravagant. But as I said, I tend to vote with my feet when I am in a museum and I can stay anchored in front of an Inness painting for much longer than those of most other artists. Using sheer time spent as a metric and not getting into whatever thinking I may be getting done during that time, I would have to agree.
Yet Inness' painting, Bell observes, are "enigmatically produced. They are, in short, full of capricious features" (37). The impossible patterns of light and shadow in "Medway" and many other pictures are one type of caprice. So is Inness' attitude toward depth of field, which in some of his paintings is scientifically (and Bell would add symbolically) worked out, and in others abandoned in a washed-out luminous flatness. Bell also cites (and connects to the writings of William James) Inness' frequent use of the "anonymous figure" (57). Human, animal, or indeterminate, this detail in Inness' paintings makes them universal and mysterious. We identify with the nameless people, perhaps; or perhaps we see them as messengers breaking through from a usually obscured spiritual realm.
Like Rachael DeLue, Bell connects Inness' ecstatic thinking to his reading in Swedenborg. Most of this connection seems to me like so much mush. Inness insisted that he was doing precise aesthetic science filtered through the rapturous ideas of the Swedish sage, but Bell cites evidence of Inness painting in impulsive frenzies. Apparently he never thought of a picture as finished (51-52) and that principle extended to pictures he sold you and you hung in your parlor. There are anecdotes of George Inness barging into people's houses either to retrieve a work for further revision, or sometimes to touch it up on the spot. Sometimes he'd improve it. Sometimes the owners wished he hadn't.
As with most exhibition catalogues, the value of George Inness and the Visionary Landscape lies in its wonderful plates, which here include additional commentaries parallel to Bell's main text. The 2003-04 show brought to New York and San Diego paintings from a wide range of American museums plus, significantly, some works in private collections that add a great deal to assessments of Inness. I'd seen some of the museum holdings in person: in New York City, in Montclair NJ, in Buffalo (the amazing "The Coming Storm"), in Cincinnati, in Chicago ("The Home of the Heron" is probably the best-known piece from the show). But most were new to me, and they've helped expand the list of museums I must get to before I die.
The most impressive, as reproduced here, is Cleveland's "Winter, Close of Day (A Winter Sky)." Bell calls it "a scene of near-Paleolithic dislocation" (81). I am not quite sure what that means, but the painting manages to be, all at the same time, lurid, majestic, sublime, chillingly bleak, and to represent anywhere and nowhere at all, a phenomenon Bell aptly calls "pure topographical anonymity" (81). I didn't stop in Cleveland on my last drive that way (museum entries were still strictly rationed as a COVID precaution), but their Museum of Art is on my checklist for next time.
Bell, Adrienne Baxter. George Inness and the Visionary Landscape. New York: National Academy of Design / George Braziller, 2003. ND 237 .I5A4