Visionary Genius

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.
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

Join us on The Artist's Road for more informative and interesting articles, interviews with contemporary artists and information on interesting locations for plein air painting.

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.