George Inness was an engraver and painter who became one of the leading and most celebrated American artists during his lifetime. Inspired by the Barbizon School and Dutch landscape painting, Inness established himself as one of the most singular artists of the Hudson River School. During his career, Inness's painting style became increasingly looser with a hazy atmosphere of subdued tonal values, making him, alongside James McNeill Whistler, one of the creators of Tonalism.
George Inness was born in the town of Newburgh, in Orange County, New York, in 1825. His father, John William Inness, a humble farmer, and his mother, Clarissa Baldwin, had thirteen children together, and George was the fifth born. They all moved to New Jersey when he was five years old, and by the time he was fourteen, he studied briefly under John Barker.
Inness began his career as an engraver, which was very common for artists at the time. During this period, the young artist studied the production of the Old Masters, especially Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain, which became pivotal influences on Inness's notions of compositional structure.
The artist also became acquainted with the work of Asher Brown Durand and Thomas Cole, two key figures in the Hudson River School. In Cole, Inness perceived a "lofty striving", whilst in Durand, he saw a more intimate relationship with nature. The artist would then try to merge these two elements into his production.
Two years later, Inness was able to open his own art studio in New York. In 1852, he created his A Bit of the Roman Aqueduct, an excellent example of the influence of Claude Lorrain's landscapes reflected in Inness production, especially regarding his soft brushstrokes with particular attention to light effects such as in Lorrain's A sunset or Landscape with Argus Guarding Io.
In Florence, the artist met the American portraitist William Page. According to scholars, Page was responsible for directing Inness's painting to a more painterly brushwork and, more importantly, introduced the artist to concepts of Swedenborgianism.
Swedenborgianism was a new Christian movement based on Emanuel Swedenborg's works, a Swedish scientist and Lutheran theologian. This was a pivotal moment in the artist's career, for it would increasingly influence both Inness's worldview and artistic output. Those ideas became primarily known in the United States through the works of the Transcendentalist movement.
During his return to the United States, Inness stopped in Paris, where he visited the Salon for the first time. There, he became acquainted with the artworks of the Barbizon School, especially Theodore Rousseau's, which would also impact the painter's style. The Barbizon School presented a more spontaneous and emotional approach to the representation of nature, an opposition to some of Inness's contemporaries, such as the members of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in art, whose production strived for a more strict and accurate rendering of landscapes.
In 1853, Inness became an Associate of the National Academy of Design, where he upgraded to full Academician 15 years later. He subsequently returned to Europe, now in London and Amsterdam, where he mainly studied the paintings of Meindert Hobbema. These artworks enhanced Inness's interest in the expressive energy that permeates anonymous natural locations.
By 1860, the influence of Dutch landscape painting and the Barbizon School would be much more perceptible in Inness's production, such as in Delaware Water Gap. This beautiful composition displays a more expressive brushwork and rich glazes of color. Inness continued to study philosophy with authors such as John Stuart Mill and Archbishop Richard Whately. However, the painter's main philosophic inspiration continued to be Swedenborgianism.
The artist was also politically engaged. Fervorously abolitionist, Inness would enlist to a regiment during the American Civil War. Although he failed the physical test, the artist frequently gave speeches to drum up donations and volunteers. By the end of the Civil War, Inness created his beautiful Peace and Plenty, which is often considered one of his most complex paintings. According to art historians, it fully embodies the overall sense of optimism for the country's prospects with the end of the conflict.
In 1870, Inness and his family went for a four-year trip to Europe. According to scholars, Inness's production during this period consisted basically of two well-defined styles; one was characterized by generalized spaces executed with more expressive, loose brushstrokes. The other is distinguished by well-defined geometric spaces reminiscent of the structured character in Swedenborg's interpretation of the spiritual realm.
His Across the Campagna and Olive Trees at Tivoli represent a beautiful amalgamation of these two styles, ingeniously merging strong graphic elements with more delicate coats of color. During this period, the public and critical perception of Inness's production would change to a more favorable view, and his artworks would finally receive proper praise.
In 1878, the artist rented an estate in Montclair, New Jersey, where he moved permanently in 1884. For the following sixteen years, Inness would perfect his style of painting. Several paintings from this period bear the name "Montclair," such as the magnificent Early Autumn Montclair, Sunset at Montclair, and Sundown Near Montclair. These paintings are beautiful examples of Inness's relationship with nature. They don't display grandiose or known locales but unknown places that would invite the viewer to a more reflective and profound experience.
In 1877, Inness was living in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where he built an art studio. By the mid-1880s, near the end of the artist's life, he experimented abstracting shapes in his landscapes and using more saturated pigments, such as his Niagara, created in 1889. His brushstrokes became more spontaneous and personal, such as in The Home of the Heron, completed a year before his passing.
George Inness died in 1894 while watching the sunset with his son at the Bridge of Allan in Scotland.
The American painter consolidated his name as one of the most prominent and unique artists of the Hudson River School. His production became especially important for its documentation of key moments of the history of the United States.
His later works, executed with soft and loose brush strokes, combined with darker hues of brown, blue, and grey, created hazy atmospheres. George Inness, alongside James Abbot McNeil Whistler, is considered the creator of the style known as Tonalism. The artist's son, George Inness Jr, also became a highly distinguished landscape painter.
"The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge, or in material accuracy, but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impressions of a personal vital force, that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation."
"Details in the picture must be elaborated only fully enough to produce the impression that the artist wishes to produce. When more than this is done, the impression is weakened or lost, and we see simply an array of external things which may be very cleverly painted, and may look very real, but which do not make an artistic painting."
"We are all the subjects of impressions, and some of us seek to convey the impressions to others. In the art of communicating impressions lies the power of generalizing without losing the logical connection of parts to the whole which satisfies the mind."
"Never put anything on your canvas that isn't of any use; never use a detail unless it means something."
"A picture without passion has no meaning, and it would be far better had it never been painted."
"You must suggest to me reality; you can never show me reality."
- George Inness