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George Inness - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Movements and Styles: The Hudson River School, Tonalism, The Barbizon School, Naturalism

Born: May 1, 1825 - Newburgh, New York

Died: August 3, 1894 - Bridge of Allen, Stirling, Scotland

George Inness Timeline

"The purpose of the painter is simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which a scene has made upon him. A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion."

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Biography of George Inness

Childhood and Early Training

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.

At the age of 16 he was employed as an engraver: a common route for aspiring artists at the time. He was employed in New York first by Sherman & Smith, and then N. Currier. He was inspired by the work of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, artists who would have an influence on his later work. In 1839 he met the traveling painter John Jesse Barker, who became his first real teacher and is thought to be partly responsible for Inness's skill as a colorist. His main mentors, however, were the Old Masters; he loved to study and work from European art and his compositions show the clear influence of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa.

<i>Self Portrait</i> by George Inness. Engraving (c. 1867).
Self Portrait by George Inness. Engraving (c. 1867).

In 1843 he caught the attention of the French artist Régis François Gignoux, a painter associated with the Hudson River School who specialized in snow scenes, and who offered Inness a month's instruction. Inness would go on to associate with many from the group. But although he worked alongside them, producing distinctly American landscapes, Inness's aims and methods were notably different from the school's, as reflected by the influence of Gignoux. A pupil of Paul Delaroche, Gignoux was inspired by the great traditions of European painting and passed his Europhile passions on to his young pupil. In 1844 Inness held his first exhibition at the National Academy of Design, where he was received as a "young artist with good promise". In 1845 he opened his own studio in New York.

In 1849, George married Delia Miller, about whom little is known. She died a few months later and the following year Inness was remarried, to Elizabeth Abigail Hart, with whom he would have six children.

Mature Period

<i>View of the Tiber near Perugia</i> (1872-1874). Inness spent most of his life traveling and returned often to Italy as subject matter.
View of the Tiber near Perugia (1872-1874). Inness spent most of his life traveling and returned often to Italy as subject matter.

During the 1850s peers of Inness's from the Hudson River School such as Frederic Edwin Church were departing on tours across the American hemisphere - including the Andres - to seek out new subject matter for their landscape painting. Inness, by contrast, modelled his first international trip on the European Romantic tradition of the Grand Tour, taking in Rome and Florence. It was in Europe that Inness encountered the works of the Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, whose idiosyncratic philosophies would change the way Inness saw the world and make a lasting impact on his work. Inness was a religious man, once stating that "theology is the only thing except art that interests me". However, his faith is not necessarily inscribed in his work: unlike the painter William Page and the sculptor Hiram Powers, both of whom were followers of Swedenborg, Inness, according to one critic of the era, Charles de Kay, "does not express [his religion] but hides it in his art".

Inness was known as a contrarian, and it is believed that his 1851 trip to Italy was cut short due to an altercation with a guard at an assembly with the pope in the Piazza of San Pietro. According to a contemporary story in the Boston Transcript, "[a] French officer standing near Inness ordered him to take his hat off, to which he rapped the man in the epaulettes over the head; whereupon there was a terrible commotion among the soldiers...[they] took the little artist into custody, and carried him off to jail." He was soon set free, but it is thought he may have been expelled from Italy.

In 1853 Inness returned to Europe, this time visiting Paris, where he encountered the emerging movement of French Realism: the work of Gustave Courbet et al. At the Paris Salon he was inspired by the work of Théodore Rousseau, drawn, as Adrienne Baxter Bell notes, "to the fresh, loose brushwork and overt emotional tenor of Barbizon paintings".

Inness was a frail man measuring 5 feet 5” inches, with an aquiline nose, a small mouth, and a pointed chin. This portrait was created by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1871.
Inness was a frail man measuring 5 feet 5” inches, with an aquiline nose, a small mouth, and a pointed chin. This portrait was created by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1871.

Inness's itinerant lifestyle moved in parallel with his personal life. He was unsettled, often ill, and prone to depressive mood swings. He could be cantankerous and had a reputation for throwing people out of his studio for asking stupid questions. His movement away from the Hudson River Valley as a child, and as an adult away from North America entirely, symbolized his emotional movement away from contemporary American artistic milieux. During his mature period he became increasingly estranged from denizens of the Hudson River School such as Jasper Francis Cropsey, Sanford Robinson Gifford and Frederic Edwin Church's. In the words of the mid-twentieth-century critic and curator Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., "[w]herever his contemporaries were going, he was going the other way." Inness's fascination with the European tradition was out of kilter with the pioneering and nativist, though admittedly still European-influenced, spirit of nineteenth-century American painting. "Studying the old masters", Cikovsky notes, "was one of the worst things an American artist could do. It was the surest way to compromise one's nationality".

The critics often agreed. Early in his career Inness was lambasted for being overly fascinated with the Old Masters, with one commentator describing his pictures as "shallow affectations of that which is at best superficial to art - the accomplishment, not the subject." Inness was advised to curb his enthusiasm for the European tradition and to depict what he saw in nature instead. While everyone around him - Thomas Moran, Asher B. Durand and friends - was depicting the grandeur and majesty of the American wilderness, Inness wanted to depict the way man made his mark on nature. As curator Margi Conrad explains, "[i]nstead of minute fidelity to the facts of nature, he focused on the emotions the landscape evoked through the use of indefinite forms and suggestive color."

In 1853 Inness was elected to the National Academy of Design as an associate - most of his Hudson River School contemporaries had already been given full membership, a privilege which would not be extended to Inness until 1868. During the mid-1850s he returned Europe, this time visiting London and Amsterdam, where he was inspired by the work of Meindert Hobbema at the Rijksmuseum.

In 1855 Inness produced a series of canvases clearly influenced by the Barbizon School which, though modern in both style and intention, continued to disappoint critics in the United States. One found it "scarcely credible that an artist who is possessed of undoubted talents, and who has produced fine works, should so prostitute his ability to paint like this."

Five years later Inness moved to the village of Medfield in Massachusetts in a bid to improve his health. He was frail, suffering from epilepsy, and dogged by stress and anxiety due to his poor critical reception and accompanying financial insecurity. Here he began to work in the style of the Dutch landscape painters and honed the influence of the Barbizon School. According to Baxter Bell, "Inness felt a particular kinship with [Théodore] Rousseau, for both artists held that an immaterial, even supernatural force generated all forms of life."

Late Period

Inness's fortunes changed just as first generation of the Hudson River School began to disband, but it was the Civil War rather than the waning of the Hudson River flame that seemed to change everything for Inness. An ardent abolitionist, he tried to enlist, but failed the medical. Instead he banged the drum for the cause, organizing rallies, giving speeches, and trying to encourage volunteers and donations. As public opinion on this issue shifted Inness's work seemed to become more palatable: people at last understood it was intended to be interpretive rather than descriptive. According to Cikovsky, the two facts were related: "[t]he tensions of war created an emotional climate sensitive to his expressive style." By the end of the 1860s critics began to see Inness in a new light, with one naming him a "man of unquestionable genius."

In 1863 Inness became a drawing instructor, teaching the Art Nouveau designer Louis Comfort Tiffany and the landscape painter Carleton Wiggins. Five years later, Inness and his wife Elizabeth were baptized in the Swedenborgian New Church in Brooklyn.

In 1870 Inness returned again to Europe, this time staying for four years. He lived in Rome, creating a series of landscape paintings before moving to Normandy in 1874. (He attended the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris at the time, but was unmoved, describing the style as a "sham" and a "passing fad".) Returning to the States, he settled in Boston.

<i>An Old Roadway</i> (1880) from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Inness was an ardent abolitionist. This work shows an African-American woman stopping on her travels to chat with a white boy tending sheep.
An Old Roadway (1880) from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. Inness was an ardent abolitionist. This work shows an African-American woman stopping on her travels to chat with a white boy tending sheep.

It was not until his final decade that Inness began to really prosper from his art. In December 1884 he brought an estate in Montclair, New Jersey and moved there permanently. He continued to work prolifically and travelled widely well into his sixties. During the last ten years of his life he visited the Adirondacks, Niagara Falls, Nantucket, Virginia, Georgia, Chicago, California, Montreal, and England. Baxter Bell notes that "[t]he unbridled energy that fueled these trips is evident in the many accounts of Inness at work in his studio, which often focus on his physical engagement with the process of painting."

Inness had at last found contentment, but good health still eluded him, and he suffered from dyspepsia and rheumatism. Friends also continued to be concerned by his bouts of depression; he could be melancholic and was reported to have attempted suicide. An early biography stated that he was once found in his studio "slowly bleeding to death from an artery he had opened in his arm on one of those days when life seemed too dark to endure."

George Inness photographed in his studio in 1890
George Inness photographed in his studio in 1890

By the end of his life Inness had won national acclaim, enjoying (or enduring) the accolade of "America's greatest living landscape artist." Baxter Bell described Inness as the "leading American artist-philosopher of his generation" in reference to spiritual and philosophical basis of his work.

Inness died suddenly of a heart attack in 1894 while on a trip to Scotland at the age of 69. His son reported that he was watching the sun set when he threw his arms in the air, proclaimed "My God! oh, how beautiful!", and fell to the ground. His body was returned to America where it lay in state at the National Academy of Design. According to Cikovsky, "[w]hen Inness died, he was in the public eye and his paintings had for a long time epitomized American artistic understanding and sensibility." He had created around 1,150 paintings, watercolors, and sketches.

The Legacy of George Inness

At the time of his death, Inness was known as "the father of American landscape painting". He left behind a son, George Inness Jr, who followed in his father's steps and became a painter, as well as his son-in-law, Jonathan Scott Hartley, who became a sculptor.

Though not a modern artist in the sense that we usually understand the term, George Inness' work certainly provoked strong reactions and intense debate in his lifetime. As the art historian Andrew Butterfield notes, "[e]ven at the height of his fame during the late nineteenth century, his landscape pictures disgusted some viewers, while moving others to rapturous praise." His critics called his paintings "diseased" and "perverted"; one reviewer in The New York Times in 1878 speculated that Inness might be insane.

Inness's expressionistic approach to depicting landscapes was at odds with the implied fidelity to nature of the Hudson River School, leading to comparisons with the English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. But these were vehemently rejected by Inness, who described Turner's groundbreaking Slave Ship as "the most infernal piece of clap-trap ever painted. There is nothing in it." In general he spurned comparisons to other artists: fiercely independent both professionally and personally, he preferred to forge his own path.

It was only in Inness's later years that critics really began to understand his influence on art, whether in paving the way for Tonalism, or in aligning the interests of the French Impressionists - whom Inness, of course, scorned - with the march of American Art. This combination of influences would inspire artists such as Joseph Decker and, in his later work, William Keith. Inness was also admired by African American artist Charles White, who studied Inness' landscapes at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Recent decades have seen a new appetite for Inness's work, with exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art, the Newark Museum, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and the National Academy of Design in 2003.

Most Important Art

Zoom imageGeorge Inness Famous Art

The Lackawanna Valley (c. 1855)

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."
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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 30 Nov 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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