The works of landscape painter George Inness (1825-1894) were both revered and dismissed in his lifetime. Although he was considered one of the leading and most influential artists of his time, his work eventually became controversial as he relentlessly pursued the development of a new means of expression in landscape painting. His paintings became more evocative and less realistic during the last decades of his life, breaking away from the acceptable representational art of the day.
|Sunny Autumn Day by George Inness, 1892, oil painting.|
He wrote in a letter to art critic Ripley Hitchcock in 1884, "I had begun to see that elaborateness in detail, did not gain me meaning. A part carefully finished, my forces were exhausted. I could not sustain it everywhere and produce the sense of spaces and distances and with them the subjective mystery of nature with which wherever I went I was filled. I dwelt upon what I saw and dreamed, in disgust at my ability to interpret. I watched thought and fought Pre-Raphaelitism. I gave way to my impulses and produced sentiments the best I could always finding myself in a hobble as I tried to make them look finished. . . "
Once he embarked on this radical idea, he was both praised and condemned in the press. The critics who denounced him pulled no punches. The New York Times wrote, "We are not sure that Mr. Inness is quite right in his mind." "His pictures are violent instead of dignified, loud instead of deep in color. They would be improved by hanging in a smoky chimney." Words like "strange, unreal, weird and nightmarish" were used to describe his late work. Other critics went so far as to claim that his work was so incomprehensible that it would soon be forgotten.
This critical backlash is a familiar one to anyone who reads art history. Those artists who strive to create the new, sometimes the revolutionary, are often misunderstood and chastised for their efforts during their lifetimes. This is especially so for those artists, like Inness, who have already achieved notoriety and success for their early work. Early success can be a kind of prison for some artists. Evolution and change can be hard for the critics and some of the public to digest. In Inness's case, he was criticized in the major media at various times for painting too much like himself while simultaneously being criticized for painting like no one else! The fact that Inness refused to be categorized and pushed far beyond any of his American contemporaries says volumes about his integrity as an artist and as a man. As a result of his efforts, generations of artists were able to build on his legacy.
Today Inness's great paintings are held in the collections of the most prestigious museums, and are rightly revered as inspired masterpieces of originality and emotion.
According to his son, George Inness died at Bridge of Allan in Scotland after viewing the sunset. He "threw up his hands into the air and exclaimed, 'My God! Oh, how beautiful!', and then fell to the ground." He died a few minutes later in the arms of his wife.
We recommend these books if you are interested in learning more about George Inness:
George Inness and the Visionary Landscape by Adrienne Baxter Bell
George Inness and the Science of Landscape by Rachael Ziady DeLue
Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly (Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute) by Marc Simpson
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–John and Ann