Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inness through the 1860's

The painting above, entitled Winter Morning Montclair is one of the most famous of Inness's paintings. The art I am showing tonight is from the next period of his life, and mostly from the 1880's. In 1885 Inness moved to Montclair, New Jersey. This painting has a melancholy wistfulness and seems to me to warn gently of that time when the autumn leaves are off the trees and the bleakness of winter is beginning. Notice the heavy forms of the strongly painted dead trees in the foreground, contrasting with the wispy delicacy of the thin trees above. The whole painting above thosedowned and blasted trees is dissolving into the warm tone of the atmosphere. That warm note pervades everything, including the sky, and the forms are melting into it. Look at the color that is stitched through the painting like the warp of a tapestry, showing even in the clouds and the blue note of the sky. That warm sienna note runs like a drone behind every color on the canvas.

Here is another classic Inness composition with his quirky dead trees and the bands of receding space across the middle. He is scattering his habitual accents across the painting. The little light and dark accents are placed particularly along that line formed by the important group of trees with the dark shadow at their feet, and the stone wall. All of the trees are bizarre shapes and there are some really oddly shaped clouds in the sky too. I think that any one of those in a more ordinary painting would draw too much attention to itself and look odd. However in this painting Inness has so many really weird shapes that within the context of the picture they don't draw too much attention to themselves.

I knew a few women like that many years ago. They had a strange feature, a wide mouth or a long nose. Any of their features placed on another womans face would have ruined it. But in concert with their other features it worked, and they were beautiful. Everything in a painting looks the way it does because of its relationship to everything else in a painting, just as everything in a novel or movie must seem reasonable within the context of its internal logic.

The painting above entitled Early Autumn, Montclair is one of the artists personal favorites. The pretense of naturalism and the depiction of a real place has ended and been replaced by an arrangement of forms and color fields that now are the subject of the painting, rather than anything of this world. The design is similar to one I have written about before, that I call the string of pearls. You can read about that here.

This painting has some of that same device. Except for the sky, almost everything happens in that band across the middle of the painting. The foreground is particularly empty. A few dark jots and marks are there to tell us that grass and earth are there. An arrangement of upright trunks and posts contrasting with backgrounds of their opposite values form as rhythmic arrangement through the center of this picture.

There is also another one of those mirror devices in here again. See the triangular shape of the dark house to the left of the middle of the painting? Now look to its right and there is the same triangular form again, the same size in a light value. I am not quite sure what that right hand structure is, sitting there on its little posts, maybe its a rack for drying something. Either way, notice that behind the dark house triangle it is light, but the "rack" triangle sits proudly in front of a dark value. Pretty much all the darks in this painting are connected up also. The post I sent you to above, also shows a diagram of the English Painter Seago using the same device. Here is a post of Hibbard using it,

This painting is mysterious and also has a geometric armature hidden just below its surface. The painting is cut almost in half horizontally by that dark line at the foot of the trees. The painting is cut almost in half vertically by the incursion of that sky shape descending vertically through the middle of the painting. Like the painting above, almost all of the "detail" takes place along that band across the middle of the painting.

Almost everything in this "picture" which is now hardly that, it is more an arrangement, is an ethereal barely perceived kind of ghost vision. Little hints of branches and a few of the vaguest indications of the structure of the trees are indicated. It is not an artful arrangement of the shapes of some particular place in nature. The paintings now are becoming more an arrangement of shapes and reduced colors that only secondarily recall nature. They have become almost entirely poetry and only a tiny amount of narrative to tether them to a vision of a real world. Inness ,under the influence of Swedenborg, believed that god, or religion was concealed in the appearance and the mathematical structure of nature. He had an idea of correspondence between the visible forms of nature and the Godhead, which I have to confess I don't really "get".
I think what strikes me about that idea is the difference between nature as a creation of God ,and nature as a manifestation or container of God. The latter idea is transcendentalism of the Emersonian sort, I loved reading Emerson and admire his prose and astute metaphoric sayings about life, still I can't really join Emerson or Inness completely in their near pantheistic vision of nature. Their is a wonderful history of that thought written by Van Wyk Brooks, called "The Flowering of England". It used to be held up as an example of great writing, although today's world would probably find it florid. If you want to read a sympathetic little history of the Concord writers, Bronson Allcott (father of Louisa May), Emerson and Thoreau you will enjoy it
Tomorrows posts will take us into the next, last and most synthetic period of Inness's painting. I think you will find them exciting. They are psychedelic, just wait and see!

images from and

6 comments: said...

Winter Morning Montclair. This painting is designed with an unusual and particular tension; the dark mass of the dead tree on the left brings the eye right out of the picture plane. The bright snow mass of white fights for attention on the right hand side. It's only the strength of the group of vertical trees and the figure that bring your eye back into the painting. I think this is one of the more interesting landscape paintings you have presented.

These unconventional devises and design work because, as you stated, they are in relationship to everything else in the painting and they are the decisions of an expert landscape painter. This leads me to believe that as a painter (or artist if you prefer) advances, when he /she breaks conventions and design "rules" using innovative devices to get the painting to work, there is new ground being broken and a great painter is born. The history of painting advances into a new era.

Can't wait for the next installment.

Philip Koch said...

The forth Inness painting with the developed sky is so lovely- delicate and yet powerful at once. When he hit it, he really hit it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

While there may be some who will advance the history of painting. I would be happy to just paint good pictures and get paid well to do it.
I am suspicious of the idea of "progress" in art. I don't feel for instance that our generation paints noticeably better than Innesses .

Stapleton Kearns said...

He hit it on that one, didn't he? It is an unusual shape for Inness being more elongated than was his usual practice.

kev ferrara said...

Really really enjoying these Inness posts. Thank you so much.

kev said...

Well ... I never did say that progress always means better. Progress can simply further a theory, idea or mannerism. It doesn't mean better theory either: just different. One never knows where that may lead. But it does mean that we are not always repeating the past and making ourselves redundant.