The Civilized Landscape

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Two years younger than Jasper Cropsey and Sanford Gifford and one year older than Frederic Church, George Inness was the contemporary of a group of American landscape painters closely joined by shared styles and ideals in the tradition of Thomas Cole. They were America’s most admired artists in the decade or so that preceded the Civil War; in 1859 Church’s Heart of the Andes drew the highest price ever paid for a contemporary American landscape. These artists traveled widely in Europe, the Near East, South America, and even the Arctic, but they were so closely associated with the Hudson River valley that they came to be called the Hudson River school.

When these painters looked to nature for inspiration, nature usually meant the wilderness. In contrast, Inness spent his entire career painting what called the “civilized landscape,” in which “every act of man … marks itself wherever it has been.” The civilized landscape served as a metaphor for his own artistic undertaking: just as reapers and woodcutters used and remade nature for human purposes, Inness used nature for his own aesthetic ends.

Inness was born in the Hudson River valley in 1825 near Newburgh, New York, but his family moved to New York City when he was still an infant, and he lived there or nearby for most of his professional life. When Inness expressed an interest in becoming an artist, his father, a prosperous merchant, gave him numerous opportunities for study. His first teacher was an itinerant artist who claimed to have studied under Thomas Sully, but the most important influence on Inness’s artistic outlook was the French-born painter Régis François Gignoux. When Inness told of his early life many years later, he insisted that he had grown up “without any art surroundings whatever” and that a month with Gignoux was “all of the instruction I ever received from any artist.” Why Inness wanted it known that he was largely self-taught is not clear: perhaps he thought it was somehow more American.

In 1851 and 1853, while Church, Gifford, and Cropsey were most caught up with formulating a landscape art derived from native precedents, Inness set off for Europe and fell under the spell of the Dutch Masters and the French painters of the Barbizon school. He paid a price for his contrariness. While his contemporaries were being praised, Inness was criticized as artificial. One critic labeled his paintings “shallow affectations.” Another detected in his work a “profounder regard for ‘old masters’ than for Nature.” They criticized in Inness the very qualities that make him respected today—his attraction to the means and methods of art (color, tone, shape, pigment) for their own sake rather than for their capacity to imitate nature. Church, Gifford, and Cropsey were elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1849,1851, and 1854, respectively. Inness did not become a full academician until 1868.

The decade of the 1860s marked the turning point in Inness’s career. Suddenly his work began to be admired because it was not the usual kind, not, in the words of one writer, “one of those striking, picturesque works, where mountains, waterfalls, cliffs and other romantic objects take the fancy by a coup d’état .” During the following quarter-century, admiration for Inness grew to adoration, and, at the time of his death, into his apotheosis as America’s greatest living landscape artist. During the same period, admiration for the Hudson River school declined. When Inness died in 1894, his body lay in state in the National Academy of Design, and everybody knew who he was. When Frederic Edwin Church died in 1900, he was virtually unknown. Had each died forty years earlier, their situations would have been exactly reversed.

In April an exhibition organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It will not be the first exhibit of Inness’s work in this century, nor the largest, but with stops in Cleveland, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, it will be the first time in recent years that Inness has received national attention. With the range of his achievement available to us as it was to his contemporaries, we will be able to see what they deeply admired in his art.