Friday, May 2, 2008

Soul Train

For an artist often associated with a particular strain of American naturalism and spirituality, George Inness spent his fair share of time painting overseas and, when home in America, painting the intrusion of the locomotive on the American landscape. Born May 1, 1825, Inness belongs to the second generation of the Hudson River school, taking the lessons of Thomas Cole and Asher Durand and applying them to the second half of the nineteenth century. Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley (above, from 1855) belongs to a group of paintings commissioned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to document their progress across the country. While Cole would have bemoaned the invasion of technology on the pristine land, Inness seems comfortable with the coexistence of the two—a sign of the receding influence of Romanticism and the impinging Victorian faith in progress.

Thanks to wealthy benefactors, Inness could travel to Europe and learn from the painters of Italy and France. Exposure to the Barbizon school added another dimension to Inness’ landscapes, softening them in the manner of Corot, Millet, and others. During his time in Italy, Inness painted The Monk (above, from 1873), showing a tiny figure walking the grounds of the Villa Barberini, a summer residence of the pope fifteen miles south of Rome. Compositionally, this could be a work by Caspar David Friedrich, but the feel is much more pantheistic than menacingly mysterious. The brushwork is also more abstract, showing the influence of another European master upon Inness—J.M.W. Turner.

Turner reportedly once said, “The Sun is God!” Inness would have agreed. Inness’ son, also a painter, claims that his father’s last words as they watched a sunset together were "My God! Oh, how beautiful!" before he collapsed to the ground. Looking at In the Gloaming (above, from 1893), painted 40 years after Turner’s death and a year before Inness’, you see a kinship between the late Turner of the swirling colors and atmospheric effects and the late Inness. Turner’s personal religious beliefs are unclear, but, despite the clarity of Inness’ choice of confession, the two artists clearly saw the world in the same way. Inness remains a true American original in the sense that he was able to immigrate all of these influences into his work, just as America itself is a nation of immigrants. Inness took the Swedenborgian belief that a common spirit runs through all creation and extrapolated it to the world of art, uniting disparate parts into a train of the artistic soul.

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