Beginnings: George Inness in Italy

November 15th, 2011  |  Published in November 2011, On View

George Inness,  as currently featured at the Taft Museum of Art through January 8, 2012, was not yet the master of a united nature concept when these early paintings were completed. Often noted as the most influential artist in the development of American Impressionism, that title would have been angrily denied by him, had he known of it. He heartily disapproved of Impressionism, with obvious loyalties , as evidenced in the Taft exhibit, to J.M.W. Turner, Corot and his Barbizon art rebels, and the Hudson River school of art whose stock in trade was built on the popular l9th century philosophical catch-all, manifest destiny: the idea that America was ordained, nay, entitled, to completely overrun the continent which once belonged to native Americans.

Basically self-taught, (another “outside” artist, folks), Inness began his art career as a map-maker for a printing firm.. Many related inexpensive engravings and etchings commonly produced by these enterprises beef up the exhibit, as a nod to the popular and affordable decorations of homes at the time and to the other available to different classes; paintings to the rich and prints to the masses Since the landscapes of Thomas Cole, and the Hudson River group were prohibitive for the less affluent households to purchase, the average art lover would have turned to these easily available prints. Inness’s first serious inspirations were spurred by such examples.

Likely also, is the admiration for Claude Lorrain, reputedly the finest landscape artist in the preceding century. Trees, in Inness’s paintings from Italy, sport branches of delicate lacy Claudian leaves, a style often imitated by most landscape artists of the time. If you have a day or two, it might be possible to count each leaf on these trees, so intricately are they portrayed. Yet, while perfectly rendered, these early paintings, created in the most important art center of the time, are as stilted as were Claude’s classical, perfectly rendered landscapes. This collection of paintings reveals a skilled artist, but hardly the inspired, glowing landscapes of the artist he became in his later years.

An art gallery owner underwrote the Italian trips in return the rights to the sales of through his gallery, a fine partnership for both, until the dealer went bankrupt, ending the Roman holiday. Italy was considered, in the mid-1800’s ,the most cultured place in the world: a required sojourn for any serious aspiring artist. A cultural cachet attached to all things Italian from paintings to songs to tourism: it was the place to be. Paintings from this nearly mythical land were sure-fire sellers.

Public taste. though, was dependent upon accuracy. Since Inness made small reference sketches from which to work, or simply relied on his remarkable memory, every rock and winding road was not exactly as finally portrayed, and he was criticized for his use of artistic license particularly for his free-wheeling composition,in totally un-Inness style of “ L’ariccia, Italy “ . In addition, Inness was a studio painter. Serious work was done far removed from the actual subject. Just one small monochromatic watercolor sketch is included in the show illustrating his quick notations. (Would there were more.) He followed the rules of painting, though, with near rote. Tall trees hem in the side edges of a scene, or reach upward as the only vertical in some placid scenes, careful adherence to color perspective, and imaginative additions of people and animals, in short, all of the popular buttons guaranteed to insure public acceptance. Many accounts tell of his frenzied method of painting once he began to work. With the first inspiration, he would attack the canvas with almost manic activity. There is no reliable record of how many paintings he made, but on one, painted near the end of his life, he wrote this number:  1400.


“George Inness in Italy” is a pretty show, full of rosy skies and favorite tourist haunts of the era . “Lake Nemi” was one of those, a lake so calm and undisturbed that it was referred to as “Diana’s Mirror.” Serenity is the unchallenged theme in Inness’s Italian works, a theme which deepened and attained new heights in his late paintings; a maturity inspired by his acceptance of the Swedenborgian religion of which tenets stress the oneness of man, nature and the universe. The change was aided by his discovery of the wonder of glazes, evident in the unified effects he achieved. Change was subtly, but surely evident , too, in “Pines and Olives at Albano”, painted just a few years after Inness’s conversion. Its reflections unify the the sky and water, heavy dusk shades all portions of land into a single entity, a white-clad monk adds a spiritual element and the final judgement leans decidedly toward mystery. It doesn’t hurt, either, that it is a masterpiece of composition, far more interesting than trees cutting off visual escape.

A little aside here: Those who saw the last show at the Taft, featuring the awesome Tiffany angels, might recall that they are from a Swedenborgian church once located in Cincinnati. Just a coincidence? When asked, Chief Curator at the Taft, Lynne Ambrosini, commented:

“All appearances to the contrary, Taft Museum of Art staff have not undergone a massive conversion to the Swedenborgian faith. It is a pleasant coincidence that the suite of Tiffany windows of angels that we displayed this past summer came from a Swedenborgian church in Cincinnati and that George Inness, the east coast painter featured in our current exhibition, was a Swedenborgian. However, this does underscore the popularity of the religion in 19th-century America, especially among writers and artists. Among others influenced by Swedenborgianism were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Nineteenth-century Swedenborgians believed in a spiritual world that resembled our earthly world but was more beautiful; this belief helped inspire Inness’s landscapes, with their radiant light and thin veils of glowing color.”

–Fran Watson

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