George Inness, “Sunset at Etretat”, c 1875, Oil on Canvas, 51.4 x 76.8 cm, Private Collection.
Born in Newburgh, New York, in May of 1825, George Inness grew up on the family farm in Newark, New Jersey. His art training consisted of studying under itinerant artist John Jesse Barker, who had studied with portrait painter Thomas Sully, and a year’s apprenticeship with the engraving firm of Sherman & Smith and then with Currier & Ives.
In 1843 Inness was accepted into the National Academy of Design, where he rejected the fashion for sentimental scenes and painted quiet landscapes of the natural world. After taking additional lessons from French landscape painter Régis François Gignoux in 1843, Inness first began exhibiting in New York at the National Academy of Design in 1844. He officially joined the New York art world when he opened his own studio in the city two years later.
Inness’s first international trip in 1851 took him to Rome and Florence. In Florence, he met the portraitist William Page and almost certainly discussed the works of Titian, which Page often copied and which moved Inness’ style in a more painterly direction. Perhaps most important, through Page, Inness came to know the writings of the Swedish scientist, theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, which increasingly shaped his personal and aesthetic philosophy. During a Paris stop on his way back to the United States, Inness attended the Salon and for the first time saw paintings by the Barbizon school artists. While Inness was inspired by the idea of divine significance in nature, he was drawn to the fresh, loose brushwork and overt emotional significance of Barbizon paintings.
After a move to Medfield, Massachusetts in 1860, Inness spent four years painting pastoral scenes in the fresh air in an effort to improve his health. In 1866, he received a commission to paint a series on a central theme of Swedenborgian doctrine. Collectively entitled “The Triumph of the Cross,” the three paintings—only “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” survives intact—used the trope of the pilgrim’s journey to manifest the transition from the desolate, natural realm, illuminated only by a glowing cross in the sky, to the verdant spiritual realm. A profile on Inness in the July 1867 “Harper’s Weekly” defined him as a Swedenborgian and marked the first public affiliation of the two men.
In 1870, Inness began a four-year stay in Europe. In Rome, he rented the studio on the Via Sistina said to have been occupied by Claude Lorrain. During these years, he created landscape paintings primarily in two styles: one group with crisp, geometric spaces that resonate with Swedenborg’s description of the structured character of the spiritual realm, and a second group with generalized spaces and rich, gestural brushwork.
In the summer of 1875, Inness lived in the recently opened grand hotel Kearsarge House at the base of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Inness painted several landscapes of the mountain, concentrating not on the majestic scenery but rather the atmospheric effects he observed. In June 1878, he rented the Dodge estate in Montclair, New Jersey; during the next sixteen years, he would perfect his signature style of painting.
In 1879 and 1883, Inness spent two summers painting on Nantucket Island, where his style continued to change, using softer tones that approached the colored atmosphere and tonal qualities of his late work. In December 1884, he purchased the estate in Montclair and, the following February, moved to the estate permanently, though he continued to retain his studio in New York. His membership in the Society of American Artists, founded in 1878, underscored his commitment to expressive painting. His progressive stance in politics continued with his involvement in Henry George’s single-tax movement and his profound concern for workers’ rights.
Inness’ body of work, which comprises more than 1,150 paintings, watercolors, and sketches, remains an extraordinary testament to his lifelong devotion to landscape painting and his ongoing search for fresh pictorial techniques. Often described as a Tonalist, Inness remains distinct from such artists as James Whistler and Dwight Tryon in his commitment to the Swedenborgian belief in the existence of a relationship between the natural and spiritual realms.