Visual Arts

George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy

by Brandon Cook

In September of last year I put in an order at Amazon for the soon-to-be-published book George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art & Philosophy from George Braziller publishers. I was in a painting slump and urgently needed the ingredients the book was sure to provide in order to make the master medium for my glazes and the proper incantational sequence for summoning an art god through the floor of my studio (I needed a little help with my atmospheric perspective).

Upon opening the book – five months later, when it finally arrived — it was immediately apparent that no such esoteric scrawling was evident. In fact this book did not even have one color plate! Just a few small black and white thumbnails. They were not kidding in calling it the WRITINGS and reflections of said artist. Oh, well, no pretty pictures; I was just going to have to READ an art book I guess.

I read with some trepidation the initial, overblown quote on the title page. And the introductory forward, by Adrienne Baxter Bell, didn’t give me anything I hadn’t read in other books (including the author’s publication in conjunction with the Inness show at the National Academy of Design in 2003). But when I turned over to the first chapter and at the top of the page read the following quote from Inness — “George [speaking to his son George, Jr.] my love for art is killing me, and yet it is what keeps me alive” – I thought, “Now we’re talking.”

George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophycontains interviews the artist gave to newspapers and art journals, essays on his art, philosophy and religion, aesthetic debates with critics and editors of the time, the artist’s political speeches, business notes and even his written poetry (which, unfortunately, is unequal to his visual poetry). For the passing admirer of Inness’s work, this book will be far too dense and full of minutiae and almost no images. There are many other fine books on the artist that a neophyte might explore, but with close to three-hundred pages of writing on or about the artist, this might be the type of book that only an intense admirer would enjoy.

The books initial section of interviews are probably the most informative writings concerning Inness’s philosophy. Inness’s matter-of-fact, anti-didactic approach to painting, expressed in the interview, rings true to my own experience. You learn by doing. “Pupils can’t be taught much by an artist,” Inness said in the interview. “I have found that explanations usually hinder them, or else make their work stereotyped. If I had a pupil in my studio, I should say to him as Troyon once said in similar circumstances, ‘Sit down and paint’.”

It came as a surprise to me when I read in the last interview Inness gave, published nine days after his death, that he very much disliked the Impressionists: “Now, there has sprung up a new school, a mere passing fad, called Impressionism, the followers of which pretend to study from nature and paint it as it is. All these sorts of things I am down on. I will have nothing to do with them. They are shams.” I wonder how Inness would feel about the current exhibition at the BYU Museum of Art, Paths to Impressionism, from the Worcester Museum of Art’s collection? Inness would have admired the work of the Barbizon school on display, since the movement was an influence on his on development. But how would he feel about his work and others of the late 19th-century American tonalist school, hanging next to the “passing fad” and “sham” artists like Monet, Pissarro and Sisley? Of his own work in this exhibition, there are a handful of earlier works, most of them small, but only one of what could be called his later visionary style. |1| As great as this piece is, paintings by Crane, Tryon and Murphy on display may be better examples of what makes great landscape painting high art.

Inness’s interviews are followed by a section of his letters, which reveal little about his philosophy, but give you an idea of the kind of man he was away from his work. One of the letters I am fond of was to his wife, written while he was away from her on one of his frequent painting trips. He shares with her the beautiful scenes he was witness to and the progress of the paintings he is executing to capture them. But in the midst of describing the beautiful scenery and the generosity of the hosts he is staying with, he is wise not to let his wife think he is having too good a time. “I should not object to the ladies having a little more beauty, for a homelier set of women than have taken possession of Sconset I think I never saw together in one place. I am afraid, my dear, that you have spoiled me.”

The third section, “Reflections on Inness’s Life and Work,” provides amusing stories and anecdotes about the artist, the kind Tom Alder would include in his 15 Bytes column if Inness had ever passed through the state and could be counted among Utah artists. Inness would frequently take paintings done years before off of collectors’ walls, saying that just because they had bought the paintings, did not mean they were theirs, they would always be his to do as he wished. So he would come back weeks later with paintings they had lived with for years, dramatically changed, usually to their liking and sometimes not. He would also paint and change paintings minutes after a collector had purchased the work. In one case, on a Friday a collector purchased a painting, destined to be shown at a major exhibition on the following Monday, so that he could have bragging rights at the exhibition. After the collector left the studio, Inness decided to tickle up the foreground and by the hour it was time to go home, he had ruined the painting. He came home in a bad mood, and when he told his wife what had happened she sent him back to work on the painting through the weekend, assuring him he could fix it. He did just that and delivered the painting Monday. The night of the exhibition, the buyer, ready to impress his entourage, was confused when he could not find his painting. He told Inness that he admired the painting on display but was confused on two counts. First, why did he not display the purchased painting as was agreed, and, second, why had Inness not shown this better painting to him in the first place? Inness just pointed at the completed masterpiece and said, “That sir, is your painting”.

This section also includes people’s accounts of Inness’ painting process, but these left me wanting. Also, the recollections make Inness seem larger than life, so that one wonders if they were not idealized just because of their fondness for the artist. An exception, are the recollections of the artist’s son, George, Jr., which were my favorite.

The last part of the book is business letters which for the most part are just that, business: quite repetitive and full of “thank you for your purchase” or “your painting will be delivered on such and such date.” These mundane aspects of being an artist have little to do with the visionary art that Inness created. As was remarked at his memorial service at the National Academy of Design: “He was a genuine man. He was a true genius, had little sympathy for those who did not share his beliefs. He was as genuine in his own life as in anything else.”

Having had such admiration for George Inness over my short career as a landscape painter, I can say after having read this compilation that all of what I thought about George Inness has now been confirmed. The greatest affirmation for me was when he was asked what is the true use of art (which to me is not far from the question, what is the meaning of life?) His answer: To cultivate the individual soul of the artist by seeking and expressing truth.||

“Pool in the Woods,” by George Inness, courtesy Brigham Young University Museum of Art

George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art & Philosophy Edited by Adrienne Baxter Bell
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: George Braziller
ISBN-10: 0807615676

 

 

Categories: Visual Arts

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