November 18, 2021

Artist Profile: George Inness

Jay Kapadia

The United States in the 1800’s was not a nation looking to rediscover its past. Rather, it was growing into itself with the innovations of the Industrial Revolution coupled with an unsinkable optimistic spirit. Many artists adopted the ideological  pursuit of Manifest Destiny, choosing to depict the American frontier as a chaotic, unruly land in need of a moral cleave to make room for a greater, more civilized society. However, within this religious and political fervor, George Inness struck out, choosing to seek and reveal the connection between the spiritual and natural worlds as a revelation of the power and awe of a Divine Truth. 

George Inness, 1890

Breaking away from family farm life, George Inness began his artistic studies with itinerant painter, John Jesse Baker. From there Inness moved to New York and worked as an engraver for the printmaking company, Smith and Sherman, Inc. Similar to many artists, the metropolitan life of New York City provided the young Inness exposure to both canonical as well as fashionable artists. Old Masters such as Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa broadened Inness’ understanding of compositional structuring and landscapes while contemporaries such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand of the Hudson River School embodied the aesthetic values he hoped to instill into his own practice. In the mid-1840’s Inness enrolled in lessons at the National Academy of Design and then exhibited for the first time in 1844. Two years later Inness opened his first studio. 

While on his first international trip to Europe Inness developed a friendship with the artist William Page. It was through Page that Inness was introduced to the writings of theologian, scientist, and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. Though a prolific writer, this Swedish Christian-pluralist never elucidated any aesthetic edicts for his New Church. Rather, Inness drew from Swedenborg’s concept of “correspondences” in which the etiology of the natural world is bolstered by the spiritual realm, or as Swedenborg wrote

“Nothing can exist anywhere in the material world that does not have a correspondence with the spiritual world - because if it did, it would have no cause that would make it into being and then allow it to continue into existence. Everything in the material world is an effect. The causes of all effects lie in the spiritual world, and the causes of those causes in turn (which are the purposes those serve) lie in still a deeper heaven.” 

What Inness began to implement as an artist was to bring to the surface spiritual realities and truths. To him, the use of imagery and color to depict the natural world was not of primary importance, rather Inness sought to perceive and present “the divine causes beyond natural effects.” 

George Inness (American 1825-1894), Landscape, Oil on Canvas

As he settled into the middle of his career, Inness left New York in 1870 to live in Europe for four years. During this period he began to further explore Swedenborg’s discourses and, separately, explore different compositional structuring with space and brush work techniques. In Landscape the viewer becomes a wayfarer along the Appian Way, nearing Rome, passing between Albano and Ariccia in the hills.  Here, Inness focused on creating flat shapes and muffling detail in the foreground, resulting in the land and trees being perceived as one ambiguous shape. But to the viewer looking in at an air of calm, one finds themselves grasped by a hidden emotion --a rising spirituality that holds the viewer as their eyes move from darkened foreground up to the lit horizon. In Landscape Inness has managed to use Swedenborg’s teachings as an aesthetic vehicle, thereby rendering Swedenborgism doctrines pictorially

In the course of his long career, George Inness created over a thousand works and continued to travel throughout. Along with being credited as a founding figure of Tonalism and widely seen as the father of American Landscape Painting, he was also an activist for the Abolitionist Movement and Workers’ Rights. Inness died on August 3, 1894 while at Bridge of Allan in Scotland. A public funeral for Inness was held at the National Academy of Design, while a memorial exhibition was conducted at the Fine Arts Building in New York City.