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George Inness' landscapes reveal more than portrayal of nature, author says

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor

Rachael Z. DeLue
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
Rachael Z. DeLue, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of a new book, “George Inness and the Science of Landscape” (University of Chicago Press).


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — To the casual 21st-century observer, 19th-century landscape paintings – with their pastoral scenes and idyllic, panoramic vistas – may appear to be little more than “pretty pictures” of bygone times.

But for those curious enough to look beneath the surface of all those haystacks, winding streams and mountain peaks, there may actually be more there than meets the eye, according to Rachael Z. DeLue, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of a new book, “George Inness and the Science of Landscape” (University of Chicago Press). A deeper look at some of these canvases – particularly those by Inness – reveals fascinating insights about what was foremost on the minds of 19th-century artists, writers and intellectuals. And in the case of the idiosyncratic Inness – whom DeLue described as “not your garden variety artist” – art usually shared equal billing with science on his mind’s marquee.

“Much more than simply a record of nature, an illustration of an idea or event, or a reflection of ideology or sociohistorical circumstance, landscape, in 19th-century America, provided a space wherein disparate discussions of perceptual and cognitive capacity converged,” DeLue writes. Furthermore, she notes, landscape painting was “a medium for use not only in creating representations of the world (images of nature, nation or self) but in discovering and communicating how the world worked.”

In fact, DeLue said, Inness actually perceived his artistic endeavors as a form of scientific or “metaphysical” exploration. In particular, he was driven by a desire to discover “a new mode of vision,” she said. “He believed the eye could see more, and was suggesting the possibility of ‘supersight.’ ”

At the same time, Inness made no attempt to render his subjects with photographic precision. In an era when painters were fond of toting their easels and palettes along on excursions into the countryside to paint in plein-air fashion, Inness didn’t go along with the crowd. Instead, he painted most of his canvases purely from memory.

“Other artists (of his day) were interested in using painting to enlighten and inspire people to see the world in ways they didn’t ordinarily see it,” DeLue said. “But he was the only one who thought of his painting as science. Each picture was an experiment and a permutation of an experiment.”

Throughout his career, which stretched roughly from the mid- to late-19th century, Inness was possessed by the desire to discover techniques and strategies for making visible that which was invisible to the eye. To that end, he experimented with color, composition and paint application processes, and read and wrote extensively on topics ranging from optics and mathematics to philosophy, psychology and physiology. He also was strongly influenced by the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, a scientist and theologian whose theories were embraced by a number of 19th-century artists and writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Although Inness is often mentioned in the same breath today with such 19th-century landscape painters as Frederic Church and Thomas Cole – members of the so-called Hudson River School – he doesn’t really belong in that group, DeLue argues.

“He saw those artists as painting merely objective appearances … the surfaces,” she said. “He called it scene painting, and regarded the work as illusory backdrops or stage sets. He thought paintings should do more than mirror the world. He wanted to explore the unseen, invisible realms, wanted to show the world in a spiritual or religious context, and was always talking about seeing beyond … gaining access to the heavenly realm. For him, painting was about science, the imagination, and the sensory function beyond.”

DeLue said a number of stylistic characteristics set Inness’ work apart from those of his contemporaries as well. Among them, “his color, the way paint is applied to the canvas (he sometimes used the sharp end of his brush to scrape and scratch the surface), and the order and geometry of the canvas.”

And because he considered his paintings to be ongoing experiments, he frequently painted over completed canvases. Among her favorite anecdotes, recounted in the book, is a story told by Inness’ son, George Inness Jr. The younger Inness also became a painter, and one day he returned to his studio and noticed one of his paintings was missing.

“As it turned out, his father had taken it – and painted over it,” DeLue said.

One of the most spectacular examples of such artistic recycling came to light only recently as the result of some astute detective work by Eric Gordon, a conservator at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum.

Gordon’s efforts determined that Inness’ painting “The New Jerusalem” – previously believed to have been destroyed when the roof of New York City’s original Madison Square Garden collapsed on it in 1880 – had actually been recovered and reworked by
Inness. Major parts of the original still existed, but had morphed into three smaller works. The largest of them had been in storage at the Walters since the 1930s, when restorers ruined the canvas after trying to clean up Inness’ retouching, which they mistook for an earlier, shoddy restoration.

As serendipitous circumstances would have it, one of the other two canvases ended up at the U. of I. – in the collection of the Krannert Art Museum. The other is part of a private collection. All three paintings were exhibited earlier this year at the Walters. DeLue said a more comprehensive exhibition featuring the extant fragments of “The New Jerusalem” is scheduled to open at the U. of I. museum in spring 2007.