Artist: George Inness
Commentary by Allen Christensen
Professor of Comparative Studies and Interdisciplinary Humanities
Director, Benson Institute
To modern eyes, this painting appears to be a lyrically beautiful painting of nature, certainly not a radical attack on accepted convention. But that is precisely what it is. The mid-nineteenth century was dominated by the work of the Hudson River School of artists who valued above all the glorification of epic expanses of untamed, pristine wilderness, rendered with a precision that emphasized fidelity to nature in as much detail as possible—down to the last leaf and rocky crag. Inness rejected such detail as trivial and painted in loose, often haphazard brushstrokes that reveal a mood rather than a physical setting. Notice the hazy outlines of the mountains and the haphazard brushstrokes that hint at the back of a man approaching a group of animals. The painted images only hint at reality since when seen up close the type of beasts is impossible to discern with any kind of certainty. Even more striking are the almost casual strokes of red on the mountainside in the distance—they don’t really represent anything in particular, but the contrast of these daubs of bright color make the muted browns and greens of the mountainside that much more beautiful and poetic. The actual location of Inness’s landscapes was secondary. He was once asked where a particular picture was painted. He replied, “Nowhere in particular; do you suppose I illustrate guide-books? That’s a picture” (Reginald C. Coxe, “George Inness,” Scribner’s Monthly 44 (October 1908), p. 511). He believed that nature was not so much an object to be recorded, but rather a source of spiritual inspiration. To Inness, nature bore God’s whisperings to mankind, meant to be felt deeply and inwardly by the heart, not outwardly scrutinized by the eye.
The year Inness painted this landscape, 1860, was a turning point in the artist’s life and career. He had struggled all his life with epilepsy and an undiagnosed severe nervous disorder that left him physically frail and subject to bouts of terrifying anxiety. In this year Inness had become so ill that his friends and family feared for his life. Partly for his health, and partly to throw himself more vigorously into the art that he loved, he moved from New York to Medfield, Massachusetts. He found solace in the quiet, though somewhat unremarkable countryside. The relative solitude of the country soothed his frayed nerves, and from this point on his work gained a confidence and individuality that were to characterize the finest paintings of his mature career. He was to live for another 34 years, during which time critics and patrons came to deeply appreciate his vision of intimate sublimity.