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John Thorn
John Thorn
John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, thinks and writes about other subjects, too. Sometimes he writes about football, sometimes about New York history, and sometimes about arts and letters, especially of the nineteenth century. He resides in Catskill, New York.


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American Chameleon: George Inness

Jan. 12, 2012 4:17 pm
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Library of CongressPublic Domain

George Inness, photo by Peter A. Juley

“There was a lofty striving in Cole,” George Inness (1825-94) wrote. “There was in Durand a more intimate feeling of nature. ‘If,’ thought I, ‘these two can be combined, I will try.’” That Inness succeeded in imbuing landscape with sentiment was evident in the fine exhibition of his paintings at Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Opening in the spring of 2005.

As with any exhibit mounted in that wonderful restored landmark in the village of Catskill, the exhibited artist must compete with his host, still the paterfamilias of all American painters. The spirit of Cole is everywhere—on the grounds, in the materials and easel in his restored studio, in the sketches and studies on the walls of his home, in the vistas from his porch that inspired him daily. Cedar Grove, built by the Thomson family in 1815, provided Cole with his summer studio by 1826 or so. A decade later he married Maria Bartow, a Thomson niece who had grown up in the house. In 1848 he died there.

Copyright 2005 Mark Thorn

Thomas Cole's Studio, Cedar Grove.

Cole’s descendants lived at Cedar Grove until the 1960s, and the property endured many misadventures until 1998, when the Greene County Historical Society purchased it and began the restoration process that has produced such remarkable results in so short a time. If you have not visited in the past few years, you have denied yourself a singular pleasure of our region.

Although the Inness paintings in the Cedar Grove exhibition numbered only eight, it was a jewel of a show in a room that was an oasis of repose. Selected with care, the paintings were mounted in such a way as to reveal the painter’s flowering in both his craft and in his ever more ethereal depiction of the natural world. Additionally, the technique of his atmospheric landscapes may be compared to that of his fellow friend Ralph Albert Blakelock, whose paintings and painting tools were on display in the hall outside the Inness exhibit.

On loan to the Cole House from notable institutions and public-spirited individual collectors, the paintings included:

* an undated Landscape from the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College that reflects Inness’s initial leap from Cole and Durand into a Barbizon-influenced luminism;

* the muscular play of light and shade in The Coming Storm, an 1878 oil from the Museum of Art in Utica;

* the mistily religious Pastoral Landscape at Sunset (1884) from the Grey Collection; and

* the undated Sunset in the Catskills, a minuscule oil on canvas that may have been one of the hundreds of barely finished works (“I have never completed my art,” Inness once proudly declared) sold at a vast auction upon his death in 1894, or the sale occasioned by the death of his widow ten years later.

Born near Newburgh, New York, Inness was a grocer’s son who, like Asher Durand, was steered by his father toward engraving as a practical way to translate his artistic impulses into a livelihood. While his early influences as a painter included Durand and Cole, he appears to have been shaped more strongly by French landscapists such as Corot and Lorrain and the Barbizon painters Rousseau, Millet, and Daubigny. The lighter brushstrokes, the thinner color values of his paints, also made him seem briefly to be part of the second wave of the Hudson River School that included Kensett, Lane, and Silva. Some have even characterized him as an Impressionist, or at least a father figure to such American Impressionists as Childe Hassam, despite his professed disgust with that sort of painting (he also scorned Turner, another to whom he had been compared). Strangely perhaps, the chameleon-like Inness thought of himself as a realist, relying upon “the solidity of objects, and the transparency of shadows in a breathable atmosphere through which we are conscious of spaces and distances.”

In attempting to capture the interaction of the visible and invisible worlds, his greatest influence was, in truth, neither Cole nor Durand, nor any painter at all, but the eighteenth-century Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg. The result was that his most “poetic” work may be challenged as a theosophical soup ladled thin. “A work of art,” he once said, “is beautiful if the sentiment is beautiful; it is great if the sentiment is vital. Details are to be elaborated only enough to produce the sentiment desired. A picture in which the evident intention has been to reach the truth is the picture that the true artist loves.”

Inness became the landscapist of choice for “refined” parlors from the 1880s to the end of his life, much as Thomas Kinkeade has become in our own absurd time, though of course the two may be compared only as commercial phenomena, not as artists. Inness remained the star of the auction houses for years thereafter, until the rediscovery of Church’s Icebergs in the late 1970s sparked a revival of interest in the older Hudson River School.

To read Inness’s spiritual twaddle is to suspect every brushstroke. Fortunately, we may choose to see the work, shimmeringly splendid, and discount the words.

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