George Inness: Gifts From Frank And Katherine Martucci

Photo: Peter Jacobs

Inness often used the motif of a central elm tree and distant white house, as in “The Elm Tree,” circa 1880. This small but evocative oil, inspired by a favorite site near Milton, N.Y., was created in his studio as a compositional study.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — Already possessors of one of the country’s finest collections of American art, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is celebrating what the museum calls “the most significant gift of American paintings since its founding.” Eight landscapes by George Inness (1825–1894), given to the Clark by Frank and Katherine Martucci, are currently on display along with two Inness paintings collected by the Clarks.

The exhibition, “George Inness: Gifts from Frank and Katherine Martucci,” on view through September 8, explores the artist’s final works, 1880–1894, when he shifted from open-air painting and representational landscapes to a more profound approach seeking to capture the ambience and spiritual essence of the natural world. These late landscapes, growing out of Inness’s commitment to the metaphysical teachings of Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, solidified the painter’s standing as one of the most significant figures in America’s art history.

As Clark director Michael Conforti observes, the “exhibition provides the opportunity to study the works of one of the great American painters of the late Nineteenth Century in a very special context. The focused nature of this collection of ten works is an ideal way in which to consider George Inness at a point in his career in which his personal beliefs were imbuing his artistry in fascinating ways… These transcendent works present a rich opportunity to explore Inness at the most important phase of his career.”

Born in Newburgh, N.Y., and raised in Newark, N.J., son of a successful merchant, Inness resisted going into business, pursuing instead a career as a largely self-taught artist. In his early years in Manhattan and during several sojourns in Europe, he adapted the tight, detailed style of the Hudson River School painters to his own impulses, aligning it with European landscape traditions.

Typical of the work of the 1850s were pastoral scenes composed along the lines of French painter Claude Lorrain and Hudson River School artists. Trees framing shepherds and cattle around a pool with mountains beyond were conventional images of that time. Exposure to France’s Barbizon School — notably Jean-Baptiste Corot — led by the 1860s to subtle interpretations of nature’s mysteries by means of expressive brushwork, tonal harmonies, softness of forms and careful delineation of light and shadow. During this period, Inness achieved what art historian Oliver W. Larkin has called a “sturdy balance between truth and poetry … a new lyricism which was at once more personal and more intense.”

Continuing the American visionary tradition, Inness increasingly cast his art in mystical, spiritual terms, specifically inspired by Swedenborg (1688–1772). After a successful career as a scientist and inventor, the Swede experienced a series of epiphanies that led to writings about his conviction that there is a direct correspondence between the spiritual and natural worlds. In essence, Swedenborg believed that the spiritual world was more real than that of physical things, a notion Inness sought to convey in his paintings.

The concept of the divine in nature was an honored tradition among American landscapists. Inness sought to continue it through compositional structures that evoked a poetic, spiritualistic vision of the world around him.

Art historian George Heard Hamilton once observed that Inness’s vision was “naturalistic but poetic, atmospheric rather than linear, coloristic instead of tonal, panoramic yet not heroic, unpicturesque in composition and painterly in touch.”

A prickly personality, Inness was a combative, argumentative man who suffered from epilepsy and likely sought an outlet for his frustrations and physical ailments in painting. He has been described as an intense painter, who worked swiftly and with energy and intuition on his canvases. As Inness authority Adrienne Baxter Bell has said, “Painting for Inness appears to have been, in equal parts, a physical, psychological and spiritual activity.”

Many of the late paintings, starting in 1880, were based on the countryside near the artist’s home in Montclair, N.J. But Inness wanted to go beyond the limits of reality to express the mood, ambience and otherworldly essence of what he painted. He struggled to represent, as he put it, the “great spiritual principle of harmony — harmony of form, harmony in color, the general harmony arising from the relation of things to one another.”

The ten grand landscapes in the exhibition document how the artist’s experiments with color, composition and painterly technique succeeded in achieving his goal of presenting a vision of the natural world that transcended physical appearance. As Inness said, “A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion.” The extent to which he succeeded is suggested by art historian Henry Adams’s observation that Inness “introduced a new quality of brooding emotional intensity into American landscape painting.”

Inness’s compositional strategies are demonstrated by “A Pastoral” and “Green Landscape,” two bucolic landscapes in which he balanced human figures and farm animals to achieve harmonious compositions.

In canvases like “The Elm Tree” and “Autumn in Montclair,” Inness invoked the motif of a central elm tree and distant white house. After painting the main elements of the latter canvas, he applied a thin layer of red paint over the composition. He then used a rag to smear the red pigment, creating vivid, evocative fall colors.

Among the techniques Inness used to increase the delicacy of his images were quick touches of the brush that contrasted with areas of pigment wiped with a rag and use of the reverse end of his brush to delineate spindly trees, as exemplified by “New Jersey Landscape.” Softening contours and blurring forms helped evoke the transcendental core of the scene, which is reminiscent of Corot. Adams could well have been referring to this painting when he says that Inness’s canvases seem “less a rendering of an actual place than a record of the painter’s emotions. Inness’s brush transformed real things — such as trees, clouds and figures — into glowing bursts of color that seem to take on an unearthly, spiritual existence.”

One of the most moving of the late paintings is “Home at Montclair,” in which Inness captured a wintry view of his house in an evocative image balancing naturalism and abstraction. As his son, George Jr, also a talented artist, wrote: “There is nothing startling about this great work of art, and yet you are filled with a sense of bigness, grandeur and the very conviction of truth and nature.”

Inness’s high reputation toward the end of his life is suggested by the fact that at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, the 68-year-old artist exhibited no fewer than 15 paintings in the American display. During a period of crude materialism, Inness’s contemplative, poetic canvases were “eagerly collected by the robber barons of American industry,” according to Adams, “who liked to relax after a hard day of throttling their competitors in business by losing themselves in Inness’s moody landscapes.”

In spite of ill health, he continued to travel widely in the United States and abroad. He died viewing a beautiful sunset at a hotel in Scotland. After he lay in state at the National Academy of Design, a funeral was conducted there by a Swedenborgian minister. It was the last time an artist was so honored in the building.

This focused exhibition, with each painting infused with the artist’s theological/metaphysical ideas, encourages viewers to think anew about their relationship with nature and to the divine. Seen as a group, Inness’s canvases remain some of the most thought-provoking and inspiring works in American art history. Their mystery and authority remain as powerful now as they did more than a century ago. A gifted technician stimulated by big, new ideas, Inness’s art was a precursor to important facets of Modernism that inspire artists to this day. Kudos to the Martuccis and the Clark for making this exemplary exhibition possible. A brief brochure accompanies the show.

The Clark is at 225 South Street. For information, or 413-458-2303.

Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History

At Sterling And Francine Clark Art Institute

By Stephen May

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — Starting in 1915, preeminent collector Sterling Clark began assembling what became the greatest collection of art works by Winslow Homer (1836–1910) owned by one person since the artist’s death. Now one of the leading Homer troves in any art museum, it is featured in “Winslow Homer: Making Art, Making History,” on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute through September 8. It explores Homer’s career with special focus on his role in recording scenes of American life.

“Sterling Clark considered Winslow Homer one the greatest artists of the Nineteenth Century,” says Clark Art Institute director Michael Conforti. “From…[1915] on, he maintained a passion for the artist throughout his collecting career, creating an archive so rich and varied, it provides us with a unique foundation upon which to build this consideration of the many sides of Winslow Homer.”

Curated by eminent Homer authority Marc Simpson, associate director of the Williams College graduate program in the history of art, the exhibition showcases some 60 paintings, watercolors, drawings and etchings, as well as about 120 rarely seen wood engravings. Some works are on loan from outside collections. According to Simpson, the show examines “how Homer’s work inspires different stories — about him, his place in the art world, the impact of an expanding art market and the quest for a national style.”

The top seascape, “West Point, Prout’s Neck,” a Homer favorite, offers a particularly colorful take on the artist’s culminating works that zeroed in on crashing waves, solid rocks and, in this case, a crimson sunset. Also a highlight is “Undertow,” showing a dramatic rescue in surf, along with six preparatory drawings that offer insights into the artist’s design process and how he developed this major figural work. “Perils of the Sea,” reflecting the harsh life and anxieties of British fisherwomen, is displayed in both watercolor and etched versions.

The much admired “Two Guides” depicts an older Adirondack guide introducing a younger colleague to the wonders of the wilderness. An oil, “Playing a Fish,” and a watercolor, “A Good Pool, Saguenay River,” document Homer’s passion for fishing and his ability to capture telling moments in angling. “Sleigh Ride” is a hauntingly wintry view of a snow covered landscape.

A special treat is an array of watercolors (sparingly exhibited due to their sensitivity to light), which confirm Homer’s standing as one of America’s best in this medium. Depicting everything from flying fish to hunters landing a canoe to farm children, they utilize unusual perspectives and color schemes.

The large display of Homer wood engravings, often created for such publications as Harper’s Weekly, offer glimpses into diverse facets of late Nineteenth Century American life. Featured are his iconic Civil War images, along with pictures of middle-class leisure and routines of rural life.

Accompanying the exhibition is an excellent history of Sterling Clark’s Homer collection written by Simpson and colleagues. Winslow Homer: The Clark Collection, 223 pages, published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press.

The Clark is at 225 South Street. For information, or 413-458-2303.

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