From an early date George Inness was perceived as the prototypical Romantic. The 1867 Harper’s Weekly described him as the epitome of the popular idea of an artist, with his “slight form, his marked features, his sensitive mouth, his high cheekbones, and sharp-cut prominent brow, which encases dark-brown eyes, now restless and now fixed…his long black hair, always in disorder, his ardent temperament and sensitive nature, his ignorance of the savoir-faire of life.” His eccentric appearance and behavior, frequently commented upon by his biographers, seem to have colored the picture of his art as out of step with the norms of his time. It might be truer to say that Inness was in the vanguard of those artists who adopted various impressionistic styles of painting that were increasingly popular in America after the Civil War, and that he shared with certain critics and artists a preference for idealism over naturalism.
Nor does Inness’ life fit the rags-to-riches myth: he came from a well-to-do family and did not have to overcome the strong parental opposition reported by so many artists of his time. He spent his childhood in the semirural outskirts of Newark, New Jersey, and it was there that the personality of this remarkable man took shape. Prophetic for his future development were his rejection of the family’s interest in commerce, his exposure to lively discussions of religion, and his determination to follow his chosen path despite very limited formal training.
Inness’ career as a professional artist can be dated from 1844, when he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design. His paintings of the 1840s give a hint of the impressionistic turn his work would take in later years, although his preference for poetic expression was already apparent. His brushwork had a Hudson River School tightness, but his compositions follow the idealized landscapes of Claude Lorrain, which had such a profound influence on American artists, even while some were advocating a closer study of nature.
It was perhaps his love of landscapes in the classical tradition that sent Inness directly to Italy in 1851. This experience reinforced his idealizing bent, and the works he exhibited on his return were criticized for their lack of truthfulness to nature. Inness came to doubt the suitability of the old traditions when he encountered the landscapes of the Barbizon School on his second trip to Europe (1853-54). What seems to have appealed to him in the Barbizon painters was their selection of salient features, the consequent elimination of nonessentials, their synthesis of the whole. In other words, they were interpreting nature rather than transcribing it with photographic precision advocated by John Ruskin and his disciples. The loosely brushed Barbizon-style paintings, with their informal compositions, seemed to unite poetry and nature. By 1855 Inness was exhibiting Barbizon-style paintings. Since they lacked the delineated details most critics expected, they were either ignored or labeled as indecipherable. Perhaps such hostile reactions explain why he vacillated between his new and former styles until around 1860, when he became one of America’s foremost representatives of the Barbizon manner”
This period of conversion to Barbizon-style painting occurred during a time when the painter relocated himself and his family to Medfield, Massachusetts, near Boston. While he may have moved there for health reasons, it is equally likely that he hoped to find Boston a more receptive public for his work.
Whatever his motives, during the 1860s, Inness enjoyed a new renown. He became a full member of the National Academy of Design (1868), he exhibited frequently in Boston and New York, and his paintings were praised by critics, who often remarked on the connection between his work and that of Barbizon painters, especially Théodore Rousseau (1812-67). In his new, broad technique, one critic saw an emphasis on imagination, feeling, and instinct, a view that probably agreed with the artist’s own ideas at the time.
The possibility of expressing mental states, rather than objective fact, was an increasing preoccupation with Inness from the 1860s on, when it received an important stimulus from his religious speculations. From about 1864 until 1867 he lilved at Eagleswood, New Jersey, a kind of artists’ colony formed by Inness’ patron Marcus Spring. There the painter William Page (1811-85) introduced Inness to the mystic philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. The belief system allowed him to join his delight in the material world to his desire for spiritual expression, since Swendenborg taught that every physical object has a deeper significance. So deeply personal were the artist’s translations of such ideas into landscape painting that they are not necessarily evident by simple observation. He told the art critic Charles DeKay, for instance, that perspective and aerial distance reflect the Divine Trinity. A more apparent sign of Inness’ conversation to the Swedenborgian creed is the increasing moodiness of his paintings from this time on.
If the 1860s marked his arrival as an artist and his spiritual awakening, the 1870s were a time of consolidation. Inness continued to develop his own version of the Barbizon style. On the assumption that the artist should not try to deceive the viewer by making him believe that what is painted is real, he suppressed details and tried to communicate the feelings the landscape aroused in him. He spent 1870 to 1874 in Italy and France, where he went to work at the behest of his Boston dealers Williams and Everett, who thought foreign subjects would be more saleable. Inness returned to Boston, but when, in 1876, his new dealers Doll and Richards had trouble selling his work, he moved to New York. It was probably in 1878 that he met Thomas B. Clarke (1848-1931), his faithful patron, advisor, and friend. Thanks to Clarke’s efforts, the painter’s financial troubles were at an end.
During the last fourteen years of his life, Inness enjoyed a position of prominence in the United States. His reputation was enhanced by a retrospective exhibition of fifty-seven paintings at the American Art Galleries in New York in 1884. Shortly after this exhibition, his work changed to the Tonalist mode for which he is usually remembered today. These paintings are more “dreamscapes” than landscapes; in them, blurry forms are viewed through colored mists, creating harmonic fusion rather than distinctness and separation. Structure becomes almost nonexistent, location irrelevant. Inness painted often from memory or improvisation rather than from nature.
While this marks a distinct phase in Inness’ development, it is at the same time a logical extension of earlier techniques and ideas, and it may represent a final working-out of his Swedenborgian ideas about a visible counterpart of the world of spirit. His preoccupation with inner realities sets him apart from the Impressionists, whose work he deemed devoid of “all mental attributes,” a naïve and superficial representation of the world.[ While Impressionism gained adherents and patrons in late nineteenth-century America, a simultaneous impulse toward idealism, both here and in Europe, meant that Inness was more in step with current developments than ever at the end of his life. The astounding acclaim that he received in his last years is testimony to this fact.