American Art Collection Curatorial

From the Collection: Paintings by George Inness

The Milwaukee Art Museum is lucky enough to have two paintings by Inness on display: “Autumn by the Sea” and “Sunset in Georgia”.

Man standing in a field with a fishing pole with a pond in the background
George Inness (American, 1825–1894), Autumn by the Sea, 1875 (detail). Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Catherine Jean Quirk M1989.61. Photo credit: John Glembin
Man standing in a field with a fishing pole with a pond in the background
George Inness (American, 1825–1894), Autumn by the Sea, 1875. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Bequest of Catherine Jean Quirk M1989.61. Photo credit: John Glembin

George Inness (1825-1894), one of the most celebrated artists of the Hudson River School, captured the beauty of the American landscape in his paintings.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is lucky enough to have two paintings by Inness on display: Autumn by the Sea and Sunset in Georgia. I will use these works to show how Inness mastered the themes of the Hudson River School painters, but made them his own.

Inness was born on May 1, 1825 in Newburg, New York. His father, John William Inness, and his mother, Clarissa Baldwin, were farmers. George was the fifth child out of thirteen born to the couple. He was trained at a young age by the itinerant painter John Jesse Barker (American, active 1815–1856). Then, as a teen, Inness worked for a number of engraving companies. He first worked for Sherman & Smith, and then he worked for N. Currier (known later as Currier & Ives). During his time with these companies, like other Hudson River School artists, Inness studied landscape paintings by the Old Masters, in particular those of Claude Lorrain (French, active Italy, 1604–1682) and Salvator Rosa (Italian, 1615–1673).  He paid especially close attention to how they approached composition.

Inness next encountered paintings by Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848) and Asher B. Durand (American, 1796–1886). Instead of focusing on the technical aspects of their pieces, Inness was fascinated by the feelings their landscapes instilled. Inness stated that he was inspired by Cole’s “lofty striving.” With Durand, Inness found “a more intimate feeling of nature.” A look at the two Inness works at the Milwaukee Art Museum, we can see how he assimilates these almost conflicting inspirations.

Autumn by the Sea, from 1875, was done near the height of Inness’ career, when his works were inspired by his spiritual and philosophical ideals. I will discuss those ideals later in this post. For now, let’s focus on how his early encounters with Cole and Durand inspired his style.

Autumn by the Sea is an expansive landscape. Inness showcases a wide azure sky with large white clouds that recedes into the distance. The clouds are mirrored by the rolling hills below. Large trees add texture and depth to the composition. Like the clouds above, the hills and trees recede into the far distance.

Inness’s use of color helps to draw attention to the far off horizon, stacking vibrant colors to draw our eye back. The foreground shows fine details and textures, but the color pallet uses earthy browns and darker greens. In the middleground, Inness uses the autumn trees to add orange-reds and yellows to capture our attention. He also uses a vibrant blue-green to show a river, mirroring the sky. The far bank of the river has a vibrant green field. Finally, the horizon is defined by a slash of almost cobalt blue, representing the sea in the far distance.

In Autumn by the Sea, Inness perfectly captures the lofty grandness found in the works of Cole. He uses its depth to show the viewer the majesty of the vast American landscape. The vibrant colors symbolize the fertility of the land itself while reminding the viewers of expensive jewels. But Autumn by the Sea does not simply show the grand expanses and beauty of the American seaside. Like Durand before him, Inness infuses the painting with a sense of intimacy.

Inness creates a sense of intimacy in his work with the use of the figure. In the foreground we see the small figure of a young cowherd. Farther in the distance a line of cattle walk down a dirt road. The boy and the cattle are dwarfed by the landscape; the landscape seems grand in comparison to them. We identify with the boy, the solitary human figure in the landscape. The boy, in turn, does not notices us, the viewer. He is lost in quiet thought, allowing the viewer to share in the quiet moment.

It was not only painters that inspired Inness. One of the most influential people Inness looked to was not a painter, but a Swedish scientist and philosopher named Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Based upon the writings of Swedenborg, Inness began infusing his landscapes with references to the idea that there is divinity in nature.

One of the most well known paintings with this theme was New Jerusalem, done in 1866. New Jerusalem is famous because it was supposedly destroyed when a wall collapsed while it was on display at Madison Square Garden in 1880. But, the painting was not fully destroyed. In 2002, Dr. Michael Quick and Eric Gordon discovered that the large painting had been salvaged by Inness, cut into smaller canvases that were slightly painted over, and resold as three individual pieces of art. Today the paintings hang in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, in the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign Illinois, and in a private collection.

In addition to Autumn by the Sea, the Milwaukee Art Museum has another work by George Inness, Sunset in Georgia, dated 1890 (below). This painting also has references to the artist’s philosophical leanings. It is lightly smaller than Autumn by the Sea, and shows a smaller expanse of land. The viewer does not see miles of forest stretching out to the horizon. Instead, we see a small clump of trees. The horizon is lit by the last light of a sunset. There is an orange glow in the distance that casts the landscape in hues of browns, oranges, and reds.

Woman standing among trees with the sunset peeking through
George Inness (American, 1825–1894), Sunset in Georgia, 1890. Oil on canvas board. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Gift of Frederick Layton L163. Photo credit: John R. Glembin

The light on the horizon is particularly important. Inness often uses light to symbolize a divine presence. In his original composition for New Jerusalem, Inness even painted the light to look like a cross. Here, we can see that Inness uses the light to symbolize the same divinity.

This is supported with his use of figure. On the right side, Inness placed an African-American wood gatherer. His face is bathed in the soft light of the sunset. Since the light represents divinity, Inness is suggesting that this person has accepted, or has been blessed by, a spiritual presence. It is probably not surprising, then, to learn that Inness supported the Abolitionist movement. With Sunset in Georgia, Inness is showing the importance of African-Americans to the American identity by connecting them to American landscape and as people who embody a divine presence.

Inness died four years after painting Sunset in Georgia. Today, he is known as one of the greatest painters in American history. His artworks, which combine the greatness of the painters that surrounded him and his own quest for spiritual meaning serve as a constant reminder of the beauty of the American landscape.

—Kelsey Rozema, Curatorial Intern

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