George Inness (1825–1894)

American landscape Tonalist painter driven by a zealous spirit to portray truth in nature

By William Tylee Ranney Abbott

George Inness’ individualistic, expressive style, and commitment to the visual representation of Swedenborgian principles reinvented the landscape genre, ushering in a new era of American art.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships & Awards
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

George Inness was born on May 1st, 1825 near Newburgh, New York. The Inness family later moved to a home near Green and Centre Streets in New York City and by 1839, George Inness had begun taking drawing lessons with John Jesse Barker. In the early 1840s Inness studied for a summer under the French painter Regis-Françcois Gignoux, and registered for classes at the National Academy of Design.1 During this decade Inness also gained his first exposure to both Old Masters, mainly through prints, and the works of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. As early as 1844 the artist exhibited his first work at the National Academy of Design. This exhibition, which included Evening, a Composition (1842– 43, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton), marked the beginning of a lifelong association with the Academy. By the end of the 1840s Inness received both critical and commercial attention including reviews by the Literary World and successful sales at the American Art Union. His formal artistic style during this period resembles the formal landscape painting of his European predecessors, as he had not yet developed the visionary style for which he is well known today.

In 1850, the young painter married Elizabeth Abigail Hart, with whom he later had six children. The next year Inness traveled to Europe, thanks to the sponsorship of his patron Ogden Haggerty, and spent most of his time in Florence where he took a studio neighboring William Page. Curiously, while in Rome, Inness was arrested after an altercation with a French policeman, brought about because the artist refused to remove his hat in the presence of the Pope.2 In May of 1852 Inness returned to the United States, but remained in New York for a short period of time, during which he was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design, and then returned to Paris. While living in the Latin Quarter, Inness gained greater exposure to French art and specifically the Barbizon School. The influence of this movement is apparent in the tendency towards free atmospheric renditions rather then defined landscapes found in Inness’ mature work.

In 1860, Inness took a studio space in Montague Place, Brooklyn before moving to Medfield, Massachusetts. In this same year Inness also secured representation with the dealers Williams & Everett. In 1861, Inness was ruled exempt from military service due to fragile health, but contributed the proceeds from one of his paintings to the volunteers of Norfolk County, Massachusetts.3 Inness again showed his support in 1862 when he organized a rally to raise funds for the soldiers of Medfield. Two year later, Inness accepted a teaching position in a social reform community in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. During his stay in Eagleswood, Inness’ students included Louis Comfort Tiffany and Carleton Wiggins.

In the later half of the nineteenth century, Inness experienced great success both in the US and abroad. He continued to travel throughout both continents, gleaning influence from a wide range of artists, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Joseph Mallord, William Turner, John Constable, and Thomas Cole.4 In 1867 he exhibited work at the Universal Exposition in Paris, took over the New York studio of John Frederick Kensett, and was publicly recognized as a follower of Swedenborgian theology. The very next year he was both elected a member of the National Academy of Design and baptized by a Swedenborgian minister. The 1870s were continually productive for Inness and he traveled extensively while also teaching his son, George Inness Jr. to paint. Towards the end of the decade, Inness was recognized as a founding member of the Society of American Artists, which sought to escape from the overly conservative National Academy of Design.5 During the 1880s Inness ventured into poetry, continued his extensive travel, and maintained significant commercial success. Remarkably, in 1890 he completed a $12,000 commission after breaking his right arm and learning to paint with his left.

In 1891 Inness traveled for the first time to the West Coast, spending time in San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite, and San Francisco. Two years later he exhibited fourteen paintings at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1894 Inness again set out for Europe visiting Paris, Munich, Baden-Baden, and eventually Scotland. It was abroad, in Bridge-of-Allen, Scotland, that George Inness died on August 3. His funeral was held at the National Academy of Design and he was buried in West Orange, New Jersey.6

The mature work of George Inness, though unmistakably unique, is a culmination of early American landscape traditions combined with the atmospheric sublime of French Barbizon painting. His landscapes are both literal and imaginary, building on the traditions of early academic painting in America, but uniquely expressive, offering the viewer a gateway to the artist’s theological beliefs. While Inness recognized the importance of truth in painting, he was a pioneer of Tonalism, the art of expressing mood through artistic techniques. By implementing subtle abstraction using soft light, Inness conveyed through his paintings an emotional and spiritual sensitivity towards nature.

II. Chronology

1825 Born May 1 near Newburgh, NY
1839 Receives first drawing lessons, from John Jesse Barker
1843 Studies with Regis-Francois Gignoux
1843–47 Attends classes at the National Academy of Design, studies works by Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand,
1844 First exhibition, at the National Academy of Design, opens studio in New York and receives first patronage
1850 Marries Elizabeth Abigail Hart, will have six children
1851–52 First trip to Europe, staying mostly in Florence, Italy, rents studio near William Page, jailed briefly for refusing to remove his hat in the presence of the pope, returns to New York City via Paris
1853 Returns to Paris and is exposed to Barbizon School
1860 Studio in Montague Place, Brooklyn, NY, resides in Medfield, MA during the summer, exhibits in the fall at the Crayon Art Gallery and the Athenaeum Club
1861-62 Unable to enlist due to fragile health, offers proceeds from a painting to the volunteers of Norfolk County, MA, organizes rally to raise money to offset the cost of ten soldiers from Medfield, MA
1864 Painting instructor at Eagleswood in Perth Amboy, NJ, students include Louis Comfort Tiffany and Carleton Wiggins
1867 Exhibits at the Universal Exposition, Paris, takes over John Frederick Kensett’s studio in New York City, publicly recognized as a follower of Swedenborgian theology
1868 Member of the National Academy of Design, New York, moves studio to 212 Firth Avenue, peptized by Swedenborgian minister
1870-74 Travels to Liverpool, London, Paris, and Rome, spends time in Perugia with Elihu Vedder, joined by George Inness, Jr., returns to Paris and then Brittany
1875 Returns to the US, takes studio in Boston, MA, travels to North Conway, NH
1878 Befriends Thomas B. Clarke who comes to posses the largest collection of his work, founding member of Society of American Artists, rents studio on Washington Square, New York
1880-84 Writes poetry, summers in Milton, NY, takes studio on West 55th Street, New York, visits Nantucket Island and Goochland, VA
1889 Seven works purchased by Boussod, Valadon & Co. and sent to Paris for exhibition, company also makes agreement for any works that Inness creates over the next ten years
1890 Breaks arm and learns to paint with left hand, fulfills $12,000 commission from Potter Palmer
1891 Travels to New Orleans, Mexico City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yosemite, and San Francisco, CA, exhibits at the San Francisco Art Association
1893 Exhibits fourteen paintings at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL
1894 Final trip to Europe, where he visits Paris, Munich, Baden-Baden, dies on August 3 in Bridge-of-Allen, Scotland, funeral held at the National Academy of Design, New York City, NY and is buried in West Orange, NJ

III. Collections
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Brooklyn Museum, New York City, NY
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, PA
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian, Washington, DC
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Academy of Design, New York City, NY
National Gallery, London, UK
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
New York Historical Society, New York City, NY
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain

IV. Exhibitions

1844 National Academy of Design, New York City, NY
1867 Universal Exposition, Paris, France
1871 Boston Art Club, MA
1878 Universal Exposition, Paris, France, National Academy of Design, New York City, NY
1889 International Exposition, Paris, France
1891 San Francisco Art Association, CA
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL
1985 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
1986 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
1994 Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
2003 National Academy of Design, New York City, NY

V. Memberships & Awards

1853 Associate Member, National Academy of Design, New York City, NY
1868 Member, National Academy of Design, New York City, NY
1874 Gold Medal, The Mechanic’s Exhibition, Boston, MA
1878 Founding Member, Society of American Artists, New York City, NY
1879 Gold Medal, Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, Boston, MA

VI. Notes

1 Alfred Werner, Inness: Landscapes (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999), p. 13
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Kevin Avery, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School. (New York: Harry N Abrams, 1987), p. 155
6 Alfred Werner, Inness: Landscapes. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999), p. 19

VII. Suggested Resources

Avery, Kevin. American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1987.
Cikovsky, Nicolai. George Inness. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 1971
Bell, Adrienne Baxter. George Inness and the Visionary Landscape. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2003.
Bell, Adrienne Baxter. George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2006.
Quick, Michael. George Inness: A Catalogue Raisonne. Rutgers University Press, 2007.
Delue, Rachael Ziady. George Inness and the Science of Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Werner, Alfred. Inness: Landscapes. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999.