GEORGE INNESS (1825-1894), born in Newburgh, N. Y., was America’s first great exponent of landscapes. A forerunner, an innovator and a modern, he stands as a revealer. The Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D. C., is exceedingly fortunate in owning his “Sunset in the Woods” (Fig. 18) because of the artist’s own words in regard to it. On July 23, 1891, Mr. Inness wrote of the “Sunset in the Woods” : “The material of my picture was taken from a sketch made near Hastings, Westchester County, New York, twenty years ago. This picture was commenced seven years ago, but until last win-ter I had not obtained any idea commensurate with the impression received on the spot. The idea is to represent an effect of light in the woods toward sundown, but to allow the imagination to predominate.” We feel in this bit of personal revelation that we have drawn near to the original power of this artist’s genius. If, in the hurry to sell today, there could be a little more of the Inness spirit of waiting until genius really burns, we might have fewer failures on the market. Why the public buys as it does is an unexplained mystery. However, if those with opportunities would live up to their responsibilities, the public would learn to buy good art, for only good art would be offered them.
Was it not worth the waiting to get that glow on the venerable old tree trunk and in the opening beyond the big boulder? How we can feel the gloom creeping in and the darkness shutting down! A stillness is in the air; the hushed twitter of the birds and the nodding flowers warn us that night is near. The cry of the owl and the night insects grows bolder. Come! we must hurry, for that brilliant glow – like the hectic flush goes suddenly
“and leaves the world to darkness.”
The “Coming Storm” (Fig. 19), Carnegie Public Library, Fort Worth, Texas, is one of several storm pictures that Inness painted. He was especially felicitous in representing the states of the weather, if such a prosaic term may be used for his poetic portrayal of nature’s moods. He makes us feel the summer’s heat hot, drowsy, quiet, shimmery under the noonday sun, also the coming storm when the air is heavy with gathering moisture. The clouds heap themselves together in wild masses, literally driving out the sunshine as they hurl their thunderbolts across the valley, A glorious sight, that moving mass now shrouding the hilltop ! A hush is in the valley ; not even the treetops feel the fury of the coming storm. The sunlight twinkles and glows on the gathering clouds, as though defying the onrush. A thrill of pleasure is ours in a scene like this, for often we have watched just such a storm gather. Inness never fails to bring to us a sense of nearness as something that warms our heart and makes us happier. Usually it is summer that appeals to him, the time when the earth rejoices and nature is giving her fullest bounty.
Now we turn to the “Approaching Storm” (Fig. 20), City Art Museum, St. Louis, and find that Inness never was any more monotonous in painting a storm than a storm itself is monotonous. He was quick to catch a unique demonstration of the elements and its effect on surrounding nature. The storm in its onrush has roused to an unusual pitch the young cow in the foreground, as she hurries to shelter. The rapidly moving clouds seem to change position before our very eyes, so vividly does our imagination picture the storm bursting upon the land. Somehow George Inness gets into our blood whether he is portraying the minutest details, as in his earlier works, “Peace and Plenty” (Fig. 21) and the “Delaware Valley” (Fig. 22), Metropolitan Museum of Art, or whether he is getting the effect through simpler methods. In “Peace and Plenty,” his unconventional composition, with its broad expanse of fields and winding stream leading to the mountains in the distance and his pleasing colour full of sunshine, fill us with the joy of the country; and in the “Approaching Storm” the rumble and crack of the thunder and lightning make our blood tingle just as they used to when we were children.
It is an interesting bit of history that Inness painted “Peace and Plenty” just as peace was declared from the Civil War and the country had had an unprecedent year of plenty. When Mr. Snedecor, the founder of the gallery, saw it he offered to frame and exhibit it for half the sale proceeds but no buyer was found for the picture. And only after several changes in dealers and a number of years had passed was this picture, now occupying an honoured place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sold and at an inverse ratio price to the number of years since it came from Mr. Inness’ brush.
One of the finest, if not the finest, collection of paintings by George Inness is in the Art Institute of Chicago. Only when we can see a number of Inness’ landscapes consecutively do we fully appreciate his words about the purpose of his pictures. “Some persons suppose that a landscape has no power of conveying human sentiment. The civilised landscape peculiarly can; and therefore I love it more and think it more worthy of reproduction than that which is savage and untamed. It is more significant.”
As we linger before his “Early Morning” (Fig. 23) a feeling of reverence steals over us, for surely it is a morning prayer of thanks-giving. Tenderly and lovingly the rising mist kisses the green things as it passes, and the trees and the grass sparkle with joy at the caress. It is not a sentimental scene, this early morning, but a familiar one that finds an echo in our hearts. The power of touching the mystery of familiar things was one of Inness’ strong points. There lingers in and around his landscapes that human warmth which makes the world akin. He was always a student, but he never had pupils. He used to say when asked how many pupils he had, “I have had one for a very long time, and lie is more than enough for me. The more I teach him the less he knows and the older he grows the farther he is from what he ought to be.” Inness worked standing, very rapidly at first, then more and more slowly as he neared the completion of his picture, to secure the best results. It was his custom to stand at his easel from twelve to fifteen hours.
When George Inness began to make him-self felt in America he caused almost as much controversy among artists as Turner did in England and Puvis de Chavannes in France. Like all innovators, he was looked upon with suspicion until he proved himself in the right. That Inness did prove himself in the right is seen in landscape painting today. He threw off the yoke of representing merely externalities, and, with his poetic instinct, gave subtle meaning to his interpretations of nature that proved him a genius. He was many times unequal in his painting, but never prosaic or commonplace, and the poetry of his scenes is always fascinating.
Inness’ own words index his art : “I would not give a fig for art ideas except as they rep-resent what I perceive behind them. . . . Rivers, streams, the rippling brook, the hillside, the sky, clouds all things we see will convey the sentiment of the highest art if we are in the love of God and the desire of truth.” When he selected the “Home of the Heron” (Fig. 24), The Art Institute, Chicago, as a bit of nature to be interpreted, he told plainer than words could tell his love for the out-of-the-way places where the mists and vapours hang low and the ever-varying atmosphere, illuminating and enveloping the whole, is like a veil revealing and concealing the charms of a beautiful woman. So intimate and familiar is he with this particular spot that even the heron, timid as she is, does not fly far from her home.
Inness was sixty-five and at the zenith of his art career when he painted “Sunset in Georgia” (Fig. 25), Layton Art Gallery, Milwaukee, Wis. With him began the war between the old and the new in American landscape painting, and in him the modern American landscapists found their strongest advocate. He saw in the Barbizon artists, as against the Hudson River school, a freedom from the restraint of painting petty details that touched his American sense of the bigness of the great out-of-doors, and he came home to find the subjects for his own paintings at his very door. These two traits, expanse of vision and intimate scenes, are the.
touchstones of his art. Even in the “Sunset in Georgia” we feel that he has chosen a favourite spot on the estate of his friend. With his poetic nature all aglow, he has given a poem on canvas that shows the glory of the fragrant wood and the shimmering water and the phantom steamer, for it seems but a phantom. The old negro servant, true to his native instinct, has stolen down to watch, feeling in his soul the charm and mystery of the coming of the outside world.
Inness was indeed a man of deep thought and of distinct individuality. Even at the end of his career, after many changes in style, he had lost none of his artistic enthusiasm or originality.