Work of the Week – December 2, 2013
by Adrian Etheridge
George Inness (1825-1894) was an American painter known for his idyllic landscapes. The fifth of 13 children, Inness was born in New York but spent much of his youth in New Jersey after his family moved to Jersey City. At the age of 14, Inness spent several months studying under the traveling painter John Jesse Barker, who exposed the young artist to the complexity of landscape paintings. In his teen years, Inness worked in New York City as a map engraver, giving him the opportunity to see the surrounding scenery that he later painted.
Through the 1840s, Inness took classes at the National Academy of Design and studied under Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, two artists of the Hudson River School. Influenced heavily by the European Romanticism movement, Hudson River School paintings depict American landscapes in detailed and idealized pastoral settings. These techniques, as well as American 19th century themes of discovery, exploration and settlement, are prominent throughout Inness’s early work.
During his trips to Paris in the 1850s, Inness began working with the Barbizon School of France. There, his style progressed from the airiness and detail of the Hudson River School, to painting with looser brushwork, darker palette and an emphasis on mood that encapsulated the Barbizon style. His subject matter also developed due to technological advances of the era, when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DLWRR) commissioned him to produce paintings that documented the progress of DLWRR’s growth in early Industrial America.
Late in his career, as one of the most prominent American landscape painters in America, Inness’s belief in Swedenborgainism manifested itself in his work. This “New Church,” a Christian religion movement informed by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, helped Inness develop a “stream of consciousness” in his work dealing with the idea that mystical experiences shape one’s perspective towards nature. Thus, the artist’s style took its final progression into a color-focused, soft, abstract-like depiction of nature.
Evening on the Hudson (one of Inness’s final works, painted in 1886 eight years before his death) demonstrates qualities from each of the periods of his career. First, the Hudson River School’s style is evident in the work. A focus on showing humans’ peaceful coexistence with nature is one of the tenets of the painting school, and Inness depicts the steamboat tranquilly traveling down the river. In fact, the inclusion of the boat itself also hints at the painter’s work with the DLWRR. As his beautiful landscape includes a giant machine not typically included in scenery artworks, Inness shows that his work painting the growth of industry may have influenced his personal work to include more of a human presence. The painting’s temporal setting – a late evening sunset – allowed Inness to demonstrate his Barbizonian techniques as much of the scene is shadowy, giving off a lazy and nostalgic mood. Finally, the beautifully saturated colors of the sunset and its reflection in the river show the landscape painter’s transition into abstract and mystical influences. Overall, this 20 x 30 painting evokes a sense that the Hudson scene has been frozen in time, masterfully captured by one of the greatest landscape painters in American art history.
Artwork above: George Inness, Evening on the Hudson, 1886, oil on panel, 20 x 30 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Bulter, Asheville Art Museum Collection, 1991.05.1.21.