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George Inness
at Cedar Grove, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site

ART TIMES June, 2005

"The Coming Storm" (oil on canvas) 1878

THERE’S ONLY A handful, but enough to see why George Inness was once considered by his peers to be among the greatest landscape painters of his time — no small claim when we take into account the considerable talent of that group of painters called the “Hudson River School” who loomed large as Inness’s contemporaries in the genre. The exhibit — “George Inness — Paintings”* — is currently on view at what was once the home of Thomas Cole — the so-called “father” of the Hudson River School — and now with its grounds and studio somewhat gussied up as “The Thomas Cole Historic Site”. Situated in Catskill, New York at 218 Spring Street, the Cole homestead on the west bank of the Hudson River with its wrap-around porch offers a splendid view of the eastern flank of the Catskill Range. One can readily see why such a site would appeal to Cole, so often a wanderer in and around those mountains in search of motifs. I’m sure that even with that distance from the Catskills his sharp eye could zero in on many a spot where he had set up his sketchpad or paintbox to lay in the groundwork for his newest creation.

That Cole’s home should serve as the venue for Inness’s paintings is, in some respects, a bit of a conundrum. Inness made no secret about his lack of enthusiasm for the “Hudson River School” even though, early on in his career, he had given himself over to their influence. In fact, he had even patterned several of his paintings after the style of Cole’s “grand” manner — though, in his maturity — and after settling on the more contained style of the Barbizon artists — he rarely had anything positive to say about the “father” of the Hudson River painters. Though Inness was familiar with the Catskills and had visited the nearby town of Leeds once or twice, it is doubtful that he had ever been a guest at the Cole household, the present showing of his paintings, then, perhaps the first physical sign of him at “Cedar Grove”.

"Pastoral Landscape at Sunset" (oil on canvas) 1884

Whatever the case, the eight paintings of George Inness — ranging in size from a 4 x 6 1/8 inch oil on panel (“Sunset in the Catskills”) to the 25 1/2 x 33 3/8 inch oil on canvas (“Pastoral Landscape at Sunset”) — amply show his divergence from the usual fare of the “Hudson River School” and, to some, may even be enough to warrant his friends’ assessment of him as one of the “greats”. Though all are compelling — done in the inimitable Inness “luminist” style — sometimes referred to as “visionary tonalism” — by far the highlight of the show is the second largest of the eight, the 1878 oil on canvas “The Coming Storm” in which he very nearly “out-Innesses” himself. One has to say that whatever the professional relationship between Cole and Inness, there’s little doubt that his paintings find an advantageous and convivial venue at Cedar Grove.

By any standard, “The Coming Storm” is indeed a fine painting — in my estimation even better than his later painting of the same name done two years later in 1880 — showing his eye for both controlled scope and detail. Inness had an uncanny sensitivity to nature — some claim as a result of his Swedenborgian predilections — that almost always borders on the reverent. Indeed he did have a strong sense of the Divine Presence in nature — whether from his readings of Swedenborg or the result of an innate “feel” for landscape — that imbued his paintings with an often unnatural light that fairly makes his countryside glow in heavenly illumination.

We can’t go too far down this mystical path, however, since George Inness the man was also a hard drinker and a practical businessman who knew the monetary worth of his talent. Above all, he was a painter who knew his trade. The eight paintings in this exhibit — no matter how we spin it — are more than enough indication of that fact — and perhaps that is the best homage we can offer any painter.

*“George Inness — Paintings” (thru Oct 30): The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, 218 Spring Street, Catskill, NY (518) 943-7465.

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