Progression of Art
The Lackawanna Valley
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."
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The Delaware Water Gap
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."
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London
Peace and Plenty
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.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This is one of Inness's more mysterious and evocative works, characteristic of his deeply spiritual nature. The piece shows a white shrouded monk walking with his head bowed in the twilight. His advancing years are suggested by his bowed spine and the hint of a stick, implied by a single dab of white paint. The figure walks in the darkness amongst the olive trees of Albano, in Inness's beloved Italy, while enormous black silhouetted pines tower over him forming a horizontal band across the yellow and ochre sky. The scene is set in Villa Barberini, near Castel Gandolfo, a summer residence of the Pope. As such, it was frequently depicted in religious and landscape art of the time.
Cikovsky held that the work's flatness and 'occult' balance indicated the influence of Japonisme, a stylistic move not characteristic of Inness at any other point in his career. The work also hints at the predilection for decorative crafts that would take the art-world by storm at the end of the century. A Washington Post article from 1986 notes that "Inness flirted with overt symbolism in The Monk, a moody picture that, in its flat and rigid patterning anticipates the linearity of Art Nouveau." At the same time, the work forges a clear intertextual link with Caspar David Friedrich's classic work of Romantic genre painting The Monk By the Sea (1808-10).
This remains one of Inness's most striking and singular works, "collapsing space and flattening objects to shape", as Cikovsky puts it, to transform the romantic staple of the scene presented. For Adrienne Baxter Bell, paintings such as The Monk are as "[e]ndlessly compelling as reflections of nature's physical beauty", and "invite us to set aside our inclination to identify recognizable places in the natural world. Instead...we might begin to contemplate an unknown, imaginary, perhaps even spiritual existence."
Oil on canvas - Addison Gallery of American Art, Massachusetts
This bold work represents a late stylistic departure for Inness. He returns to the themes of the great American landscapists, but whereas Frederic Edwin Church's famous painting of the Niagara Falls (1857) offers mesmeric hypernaturalism, Inness opts instead to express the noise and power of the falls through expressive paintwork and romantic color effects. The viewer is placed in an elevated position on the American bank, looking towards the bottom fifth of the canvas, which is populated in the foreground by shrubbery and people. Most of the composition, however, is given over to the blues and greens of cascading water, crashing noisily into the center of the composition and giving way to clouds of vapor. A dark and stormy sky makes up the top third of the composition; but whereas a common device of the Hudson River school was to omit all signs of human or industrial activities, Inness depicts a towering chimney belching out purple smoke that merges with the gray black sky.
Niagara Falls was a favorite subject of Inness's, one which he returned to nine times across his career. This version of the scene offers us a typically bold and idiosyncratic combination of influences, reminding us both of the late seascapes of J.M.W. Turner and perhaps the smoky nocturnes of the American Impressionist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In terms of compositional fidelity the smokestack is a characteristically ambiguous feature. At the time of painting the chimney had been destroyed; as the art historian Alexander Jackson asks, therefore, "[c]ould [Inness] have been drawing attention to the negative impacts of human activity on nature? Or was he simply concerned with the harmonious tonal effects created by the combination of clouds, smoke and spray? The composition of the painting draws attention to the smokestack, yet the smoke itself does not seem threatening, as its pinkish-gray hues melt into the dark gray skies." Either way, the work is a perfect example of Inness's use of Tonalist effects, utilizing the loose painterly style typical of the school, that emphasized atmospheric effects over naturalistic detail.
Joshua Taylor, former director of National Collection of Fine Arts, wrote that when viewing Inness's paintings of his later period, "we are thrown back upon our emotional responses, set free to wander not only in the undefined washes of color in the landscape, but also pleasurably in the reaches of the mind."
Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Sunset in the Woods
This work, painted just three years before Inness's death, exemplifies his ongoing commitment to independence as an artist. There is not so much a story to be told by the piece as a feeling to be conveyed, presented through the image of a dark, almost magical-seeming wood at twilight. No human figures or animals can be seen, and the gloaming obscures most of the detail. Illuminated in yellow golds, the canvas draws the eye to a beech tree in the center-right, met by a horizontal band of green forest-floor stretching across the lower center of the work. A looming rock structure blocks out light from behind. Beyond this, a strip of green light can be seen, with further illuminated trees in the background. The overall impression is of an ethereal and ghostly silence.
Inness did not often comment on his individual works, but he did talk about this piece the year it was completed: "I commenced this picture several years since but until last winter I had not obtained any idea commensurate with the impression received on the spot. The rocks and general formation are like the place but the trees, especially the beech, are increased in size. The idea is to represent an effect of light in the woods toward sundown but to allow the imagination to predominate." This work shows more clearly than ever the effect of Swedenborgen philosophy on the artist's work. As the art historian Sally Whitman Coleman notes, "Inness...believed that everything in nature had a mystical component, which he conveyed in his paintings with asymmetrical and balanced compositions, forms with softened edges [and] saturated color."
Whether or not we hold to the mystical conceptual underpinnings of the piece, Sunset in the Woods has an undeniably powerful effect, reminiscent of some of the sylvan scenes of the later, Russian Peredvizhniki school, but with a magical quality that is entirely unique to the artist. As Cikovsky puts it, "weight is suspended, time is slowed, sound is stilled, substance is softened, atmosphere is unbreathably substantial and thick with color."
Oil on canvas - Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.