George Inness is far and away the most compelling American landscape artist of the 19th century. I can't remember having seen his work before settling in the US in 2008, but after doing so I saw it everywhere. And no wonder; as we learn in this brief but informative publication, Inness produced more than 1,000 paintings in a career that spanned half a century.
The fifth of 13 children, he was expected to enter business when he grew up. But his incompetence in trade was evident from the first, and he was allowed first to train as a map engraver and then as an artist. Landscape was what most attracted him. Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School were then popular, and like so many at the time, Inness was drawn by the scale and drama of their art.
In 1851 he spent more than a year in Rome, where he painted Twilight on the Campagna, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The restoration of this work is the occasion for the exhibition that gave rise to this book.
The artist William Page rented a studio below Inness in Rome, and it is likely that he introduced Inness to Swedenborgianism. Nothing underlines Inness' Romantic leanings more than his commitment to this mystical, visionary faith, into which he would be baptised in 1868. For years after, he would publish essays explicating the connections between Swedenborgian theology and the visual arts.
Twilight on the Campagna is a stunning painting. It shows a tree standing by a river, two storks in the foreground. As Mark Mitchell observes, it marks a departure from Inness' usual manner, which up to this point was derivative, and shows him attempting to capture the more numinous qualities of the natural world. Judy Dion, the conservator who worked on Twilight on the Campagna, points out two "ghost" birds in the painting, one of which can clearly be seen taking flight.
Inness was fascinated by spiritual pursuits of all kinds, including Catholicism; and his love of Titian and Raphael was informed by a deep feeling for that faith. How peculiar, then, that the occasion of his departure from Rome was an incident in which he refused to doff his cap to the Pope, which led first to his assault and then to his arrest.
Italy was always a catalyst for Inness. By the time he returned in 1872, his mature style was established, but his painting of Lake Nemi shows him changing direction in a remarkable way, as Mitchell observes: "Its pristine quiet and flawless tonal gradations stand at a watershed in Inness's career, transforming topography into a study of suffused light." The composition is organised around a void that in other hands would simply have been that - emptiness. No other US artist of the time was so expert at capturing the passage of light, and at arguing for its apparent tendency to become substance. But then, no other would have wanted to do so. To someone whose visionary propensities were so highly developed, it was second nature. It's little surprise that, when he returned to the US, Inness was hailed as the head of the new school of painting.
Not everyone will be able to visit the faux Acropolis that is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and for them this volume will be the next best thing. It contains excellent reproductions of the principal works of Inness' Italian sojourns, with expert commentary by Mitchell and Dion. It is a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship on this important artist.
George Inness in Italy
By Mark D. Mitchell with Judy Dion
Yale University Press, 60pp, £12.99
Published 24 February 2011