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Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Inness, George
(1825-1894)
Collection: American Collection
Specialties: Paintings, Prints
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Born on May 1, 1825 in Newburgh, New York, George Inness was the son of a
grocer from New York City. With little formal training, his professional
career began with imitations of Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson
River School. Surprisingly successful in that mode at the beginning of his
career, Inness had a painting exhibited at the National Academy of Design
in 1844 and established his own studio in New York by 1848. But critical
acclaim eluded him. In 1851, Inness decided to take a trip to Europe in
the hope of developing more artistic polish. However, in early 1852, he
and his family were expelled from Italy after he refused to take off his
hat at a papal audience. By May, they were back in New York and critic
George Templeton Strong was writing that his paintings were "like servile
copies of the `old masters'". But in 1853, Inness was able to take a
second trip to Europe, and this time discovered the Barbizon School in
France. He immediately changed his painting style. And there was an even
greater new influence in his life: he also discovered the teachings of
Emanuel Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was one of the most remarkable figures of the Enlightenment. He
was an inventor, scientist, civil servant, philosopher, and in his own
words, a "rational revelator". He broke with the traditional teachings of
the established church and focused on a new understanding of the nature of
salvation similar to that of Gnosticism. As a Swedenborgian, Inness felt a
responsibility to use the representation of nature to express his own
spiritual concepts, unlike the Hudson River School which had attempted to
erase the hand of the painter in order to render God's nature as the
visible representation of God Himself. Inness declared, " . . . the
highest beauty and truest value of landscape painting are in the sentiment
and feeling which flows from the mind and heart of the artist," and made
it clear that he preferred what he called a "civilized landscape", i.e. "a
landscape, where no part is left uncultivated, but all is made subservient
to the pleasure and happiness of its residents."

Under the direction of his new agent, George Ward Nichols, Inness's work
took off, drawing ecstatic reviews in 1860 like the New York Tribune's ,
"Mr. Inness is a man of unquestionable genius; he is one of the finest and
most poetical interpreters of Nature in her quiet moods among our
landscape painters." In 1864, Inness moved to the estate of Eagleswood in
New Jersey, which had once been a utopian community based on Swedenborgian
principles. A biography in Harper's Weekly identified him as a
Swedenborgian and reported that he "believes all material objects in form
and color have a spiritual significance and correspondence." In 1882,
Charles de Kay in an article for The Century commented, "In the mind of
Inness, religion, landscape, and human nature mingle so thoroughly that
there is no separating the several ideas." His work became steadily less
and less representational as he used his reaction to nature to create an
expression of spirituality in which the actual scene was less important
than the emotional reaction it provoked. His increasing abstraction
confounded some critics while laying a foundation for later claims that he
prefigured modernist art. He remained controversial as well for repainting
and changing paintings that had already been "finished" and in some cases,
already purchased. On one notable occasion, "a dawn became a sunset", and
one poor soul who had purchased a seascape from him loaned it back to him
for an exhibition at the Academy and, upon visiting "his" painting,
discovered that Inness had "improved" it into a landscape instead.

By 1887, American critics were claiming that his work was superior to that
of the French Barbizons who had originally inspired him. During the last
decade of Inness's life, he was not only wealthy, but probably the most
respected landscape painter in America. In 1894 he decided to make another
trip to Europe. He was touring Scotland when he suddenly and rather
mysteriously died. Despite the distance, his body was brought back to
America where it lay in state at the National Academy of Design, only the
third artist to be so honored. In 1905, critic Arthur Hoeber called him
"not only the greatest landscape painter that America has produced, but .
. . one of the greatest artists of the modern world, fit to rank with the
best of all nations." Today, Inness retains his place alongside the other
great masters of landscape to celebrate our enduring fascination with the
world of nature.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections