Landscape Painting Lessons from the Masters: Inness

7 Sep 2011

These four oil paintings have something in common. Yes, of course, they were all painted by George Inness (1825-1894), one of the greatest American landscape painters of all time. But there's something else, an incredibly valuable lesson. Have you spotted it yet?

Clearing Up by George Inness, oil painting, 1860. Landscape by George Inness, oil painting, c. 1885
Clearing Up by George Inness, oil painting, 1860. Landscape by George Inness, oil painting, c. 1885

Well, we could honor Inness for his decision to evolve over time. He started out as a tight, realistic painter of the Hudson River School, like Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church. Clearing Up is a wonderful example of his early landscape painting style. But, influenced by painters like Corot and the Impressionists, he gradually loosened up, as evidenced by the painting called Landscape. In one of his writings, he explained that an "elabourateness [sic] in detail did not gain me meaning."

The Trout Brook by George Inness, oil painting, 1891. Summer Landscape by George Inness, oil painting, 1894.
The Trout Brook by George Inness, oil painting, 1891. Summer Landscape by George Inness, oil painting, 1894.

By the time he had reached his final years, when he painted The Trout Brook and Summer Landscape, he was using landscape as a vehicle for expressing his spirituality, which is why these late paintings are so mystical and poetic. He used a tonal approach to color to create these moods, and he used geometry and structure to represent his belief that there is a supreme organizing force at work in nature. Thus, we could study Inness to discern how to infuse a painting with meaning beyond the mere representation of a place and time.

But no, if there's one lesson that we can take only from Inness, it is this: Look at the composition in these four paintings. Notice how he placed the horizon line smack-dab in the center of the painting. As if that's not enough, he often divides those halves into quarters. And while he's at it, he sometimes puts a tree right in the center of the painting. In short, Inness breaks "the rules" time and again, and yet he always makes it work through a careful weighting of mass and color.

For me, that is the thing I love best about George Inness. So whenever you start feeling hamstrung by "the rules," remember the example set by this extraordinary artist. In art, there are no rules that can't be broken successfully. Yes, there are guidelines that are incredibly useful in helping us make good choices, but we always have the freedom of Inness.

-Jennifer


Related Posts
+ Add a comment

Comments

mark beale wrote
on 8 Sep 2011 5:44 AM

Although I'm pleased to see Inness profiled here, I would disagree with much of this characterization of him. George Inness was the father of Tonalism. His style was based on tight control of tonal value to evoke emotion in the viewer. He was not a beacon for "breaking the rules". Limited use of the human figure and architecture allowed him to emphasize the natural world and our spiritual connection to it. The viewer was the main figure and the subject of the painting. His work was largely unrelated to Impressionism where color priority is the founding principal. Mark Beale.

Stevey J wrote
on 6 Nov 2011 4:00 PM

I don't think Jennifer was trying to say Inness was a maverick rule breaker but that even a tight tonal and detailed oriented type of painter gets bored and colors outside of the lines sometimes. There is a very obvious difference between the dull tight Clearing Up painting and the more dreamy The Trout Brook which is much more appealing to me.