Reflection Was the Real Intensity

George Innes Paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

by Adrienne Baxter Bell

There is nothing more mysterious than the power of an aged artist to give life to a blot or a scribble; it is as inexplicable as the power of a young poet to give life to a word.1

 —Kenneth Clark


George Inness, The Road to the Village, Milton, 1880, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institue, Williamstown, MassachusettsHow do we reconcile the tightly wrought early paintings of Titian—the porcelain-surfaced Venus of Urbino (1538), for example—with the nearly vertiginous late Pietà (1575) at the Accademia, where an inflamed Mary Magdalene appears to disintegrate both physically and psychologically? Scholars have long sought to reconcile Beethoven’s use of the established traditions of classical music in his early symphonies with the introspective, intimate late sonatas, one of which (Sonata No. 28) Beethoven himself described as “a series of impressions and reveries.”2 Would we know that Henry James, the author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians, with their sharply crafted descriptions of physical settings, years later wrote The Sacred Fount, which segues deep intothe murky recesses of the characters’ minds, including that of the dominating narrator? Indeed, this narrator is so ensorcelled by his own thought process that it consumes his relationships to other characters. At this point, he tells us: “I did my best for the rest of the day to turn my back on them, but with the prompt result of feeling that I meddled with them more in thinking them over in isolation than in hovering personally about them.”3

 Frank and Katherine Martucci’s recent gift of eight commanding paintings by George Inness (1825–94) to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute invites a review of his place within nineteenth-century American art.4 However, as these paintings date primarily to the last fifteen years of Inness’s life, they also invite us to consider the Delphian world of his late phase. These are not works that we can simply align with the prevailing tendency by artists to paint in the Tonalist style, nor are they more expressively rendered versions of the artist’s earlier, Hudson River School paintings. Instead, they seem to open out into the broader history of art, provoking comparisons not only to a wider range of styles but even to artists working in different mediums, such as music, literature and poetry. For they propose new ideas on artistic form and content, and on the viewer’s engagement with the creative field.

These new ideas did not come to Inness immediately. Instead, he entered a world that his Hudson River School predecessors had established in the 1830s and 1840s, benefitting from the ways in which their paintings and theoretical essays revealed the intimate bonds between nature and spirit. In his “Essay on American Scenery” (1836), the prescient Thomas Cole (1801–48) worried about industry and how its “improvements of cultivation” would cause the“sublimity of the wilderness” to “pass away.” He established the fundamental identity of the American landscape as a site for God’s creativity; these settings, Cole stated, “are his undefiled work.”5 As a young artist, Inness prized Cole’s philosophy. But while he abided by Cole’s stylistic models, he soon felt their limitations. Years later, he would reflect on his advancing distance from what he termed “elabouration in detail.” He wrote to the art critic Ripley Hitchcock, “I could not sustain it everywhere and produce the sense of spaces and distances and with them that subjective mystery of nature with which wherever I went I was filled.”6 Exposure to works of the Barbizon School bolstered his inclination to paint more intuitively. Inness began to reveal otherwise overlooked settings, such as forest interiors, hideaways rich with dramatic intensity. These works captured the essence of locations, rather than their prosaic details.George Inness, New Jersey Landscape, 1891, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Seen in this context, The Road to the Village, Milton (1880) becomes more than a humble representation of a bucolic setting in upstate New York. Inness would have been privy to this kind of scene since childhood. Born on a farm near Newburg, New York, he undoubtedly studied the subtle variations of green evident in the foreground field. Still, these visual refinements carried added weight for Inness; they served his desire to convey “unity” (as he put it) between nature and the divine, between sense impressions and innate ideas. Inness articulated this goal in interviews from this period. “Art is representative of spiritual principles,” he explained.7 “Rivers, streams, the rippling brook, the hill-side, the sky, clouds—all things that we see,” he continued, “can convey that sentiment [unity] if we are in love of God and the desire of truth.”8 For Inness, “unity” could be achieved not by adhering to optical resemblance, which captured physical appearances, but by painting freely and expressively throughout the composition in an attempt to convey the inner essence of nature’s forms.

Inness would probe the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of “unity” with more depth than any other American artist of his generation. To this end, he engaged deeply, from his twenties onward, with the writings of the eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1771). Swedenborg’s ideas helped Inness to formulate his own understanding of the unity of mind and body, of the material and the spiritual, which he expressed in letters, essays, poems and especially in his paintings. A central Swedenborgian procedure was that of spiritual influx, which describes the continual inflowing of God’s divine love and wisdom—of life—from Him through the spiritual world (“the world of causes”) into nature (“the world of effects”). According to this doctrine, all natural objects are intrinsically inanimate until imbued with life through the influx of spirit. It is likely that the concept of influx guided Inness as he gradually transitioned from earlier, naturalistic representations of the landscape—ones more in line with the styles of Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic E. Church—to the indeterminate representations of his late period. In the superb New Jersey Landscape (1891), we do not sense that a natural wind is moving through the setting, disturbing the appearance of some parts while leaving others static. Instead, all of the forms seem to be vibrating very slightly from within. This peculiar appearance accords with one of Inness’s observations: “The true end of art is not to imitate a fixed material condition but to represent a living motion. The intelligence to be conveyed by it is not of an outer fact, but of an inner life.”9 Inness’s late landscapes function as pictorial correspondences for his belief in the omnipresence of this living motion, this life-giving force in nature. It represented what he termed “the reality of the unseen.”10

By 1866, Inness had started a commission to paint three works on a Swedenborgian theme; only The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1867; The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Gallery at Vassar College) remains intact. Two years later, he and his wife were baptized at the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in Brooklyn by the Rev. John Curtis Ager. In addition to the process of influx, Swedenborg’s law of correspondence between the spiritual and natural realms also engaged Inness’s intellect and brush. More specifically, he studied the spiritual identities of colors. Inness was probably introduced to these ideas by William Page (1811–85), a fellow artist and fellow Swedenborgian who wrote lengthy, detailed treatises on the subject. In 1867, Inness published “Colors and their Correspondences” in the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Messenger. Here, he writes: “Having given the study of color great attention during the larger portion of my life, I have been frequently impressed with numerous beautiful correspondences of the same….”11 A “correspondence,” as defined by Swedenborg, is a basic relationship between two levels of existence. For example, natural light corresponds to wisdom; natural light illuminates physical space and wisdom enlightens the mind. Blue, the color of the sky, or “heavens,” represents truth on the highest level—celestial truth. Red is created from “the fire of the spiritual sun” and corresponds to love. Yellow corresponds to that which is natural and is used, when mixed with blue, to create green, the color of most plants and, therefore, a color that corresponds to truth. Inness’s description of orange stands out: it is “the color of ripeness, the color of the most delicious fruits, the color of the pure, celestial flame that warms while it illumines.”12

Page never manifested his spiritual readings of colors in his paintings; they remained bound to his literary world. Inness grappled with them philosophically and may have manifested them in his late landscape paintings, such as Autumn in Montclair (c. 1894). Michael Quick has suggested that the central motif for this work probably originated years earlier, in a copse of elm trees that Inness painted several times in the early 1880s.13 (One rendering is The Elm Tree, c. 1880. Ideally, the two paintings would be juxtaposed at the Clark.) But it is the strange, orange-reddish film—a color bath—that sustains our attention in the later painting. It permeates every inch of the pictorial space, serving as a substratum for the moss-green field, the umbrageous trees and the dusky-teal sky. While the color orange could, at face value, be equated with the characteristic tonalities of autumn, it could also be viewed, through the Swedenborgian lens that reflected Inness’s outlook, as heavenly warmth from the divine.

George Inness, Autumn in Montclair, c. 1894, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Willamstown, MassachusettsIf we situate this discussion of color correspondences during Inness’s very early years, it would seem a bit inappropriate, even for a Hudson River School painter of spiritualized landscapes. It is not so foreign, however, to the aesthetics of early American and European modernism—to the ideologies of the Fauves, Der Blaue Reiter, the Synchromists and the Orphists. Influenced by Theosophy, Buddhism and the expanded range of the sciences—X-rays, for example—to reveal hitherto invisible forms in nature, the Czech modernist František Kupka used art and color to reify the existence of an immaterial real-ity beneath surface appearances, a place where, as Maurice Tuchman put it, “color is imaginary, space is infinite, and everything appears to be in a state of constant flux.”14 In Composition (1924; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha), Kupka used a technique that would have sounded eminently familiar to Inness. He stated: “Atmosphere in a painting is achieved through bathing the canvas in a single scale of colors. Thus one achieves an état d’âme (state of being) exteriorized in luminous form.”15 With their representations of trees, grasses, houses, rivers, birds and human figures, Inness’s late landscapes did not fully enter into this modernist world. But in works such as Autumn in Montclair, Inness tested and provoked its limits more than any other artist of his generation.

Wood Gatherers: An Autumn Afternoon, 1891, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institue, Williamstown, Massachusetts

He used the Rückenfigur, or a back-turned figure, as another means of creating “unity” in his art. A trope of German Romantic paintings—as in, for example, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818; Kunsthalle, Hamburg)—the Rückenfigur adopts the pose of the viewer and invites our virtual resettlement into the painted space. We see it at work in A Pastoral (c. 1882–85). In a marshy setting and surrounded by tall grasses and leafy trees, a red-vested boy, his back turned to the viewer, drives a skiff across a barely visible stream. Oddly enough, we hardly notice the three large cows— one white, one black and one golden brown—on the right side of the setting. Instead, Inness’s Rückenfigur places us in a magnetic relationship with the woman in white in the upper-right corner of the scene. She is remote, anonymous—indeed, entirely faceless—and incandescent, spun, so it seems, from an alternate metaphysical substance. As the subject of the skiff-driver’s gaze and of our own, she adopts the place and identity of the moon in Friedrich’s Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (c. 1818/1824; Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin).16 As an archetype of the sublime, she embodies greatness beyond all possibility of measurement and calculation. What that greatness may be—love, perhaps, or destiny, or faith—remains unarticulated and left, in Inness’s characteristically beguiling way, to the viewer’s imagination. What she does, however, is catalyze a metamorphosis from nature to the supernatural, from the physical to the metaphysical.

The back-turned figure reappears in several Inness paintings at the Clark, namely in Green Landscape (1886), New Jersey Landscape (1891), Wood Gatherers: An Autumn Afternoon (1891) and Home at Montclair (1892). At all times, the identity of the figure remains entirely unknown; on occasion, the figure appears so insubstantial as to seem only marginally human. In the elegiac, snow-flecked Home at Montclair, Inness creates a subtle visual gambit around the figure. He leads us to it via the serpentine line of the fragile fence, which winds from the lower right to the middle-left side of the painting. When we arrive at the figure, however, we find him (or her) obfuscated in a hazy atmosphere that bathes the buildings and skeletal trees at the horizon. The primary figure visible in Wood Gatherers is a woman wearing a white head scarf and a yellow-and-grey dress. Composed of six or seven quick dashes of black and deep brown paint, the shorter figure beside her is, by contrast, entirely perplexing. Is this the woman’s child? If so, what is the gender? Even more baffling is the figure behind them. Composed of two smudges of black, a smear of red, a tiny dot of white, and four miniscule dots of brown paint, this anthropomorphic construction not only emerges as a figure but one that also seems, improbably enough, to be carrying a fishing pole. Through these daubs of paint, Inness found the essence of the human form. He presents it to us to challenge our powers of perception. He seems to suggest, moreover, that these powers are not as valuable as they may first seem and that other powers—those of our imagination and our insight—may, ultimately, prove more useful and fulfilling.

With and through his evocation of influx, his color baths and the amorphous, anonymous figures in his paintings, Inness challenges the very terms through which we perceive, both visually and cognitively. He urges us to reconsider what it means to organize, identify and interpret sensory information in order to understand our environment. He makes us acutely aware of the visual signals that result from the physical stimulation of our sense organs. Do we see what he has painted? Or do we construct larger, more complex images from fragments he provides?

The amorphous, humanoid figures find counterparts in the inchoate fields, Cimmerian trees and rudimentary buildings of Inness’s late landscapes. Are the flecks of black paint in Home at Montclair actually birds pecking at seeds in the snow? Or are they tiny pieces of wooden detritus? Or are they gestural marks of the artist, applied for his own esoteric purposes? Our uncertainty suggests that they—and, indeed, his late paintings as a group—transcend the limits of pictorial definition. They become vehicles for signs or codes of forms, rather than forms themselves. Applied, as they were, by a devoutly spiritual artist, they may adopt the properties of thought and spirit as well. In his work on these types of puzzling forms, James Elkins has observed that art history lacks “a persuasive account of the nature of graphic marks, and that limits what can be said about pictures.”17 In one discussion on the nonsemiotic elements of pictures, he focuses on a particularly musty drawing by the Mannerist Pontormo (1494–1557), a representation of a male torso (Uffizi, No. 6572F), in which “[i]ntentional marks vie with mold, stray ink, tarnish from fingerprints, and chemical seepage, and there is no certainty about the nature of even the intentional marks, their order in the making of the image, or the places where they begin or end.” Although the work is, for Elkins, “an exemplary image,” he cautions us not to identify it merely as a “figure drawn by Jacopo da Pontormo.” To do so is to limit its power and even, in Elkins’s charged assessment, to commit “an act of violence against the image.” One could redress this crime by “giving a fuller version of how the image works.”18 The same might be said for the forms in Inness’s late paintings. To identify them simply as “trees” or “figures” or “fields” is to limit the range of their expressiveness and to constrain our cognitive and emotional engagement with them. When we study them, we should look beyond the traditional approaches of art history and devise new systems of analysis, new ways of thinking and new ways of engaging with art.

This is where Inness leaves the viewer: in a liminal zone somewhere between form and color, clarity and obscurity, near and far, self and other, sacred and profane. He asks us to question our definitions of “color” and “form” and “location.” Are they what we think they are? Or could they operate in new ways? Could they pose larger questions about who we are and how, for want of a better phrase, life works? In The Sacred Fount, James’s narrator, who turned his back on his compatriots and who “meddled with them more in thinking them over in isolation than in hovering personally about them,” finally concludes, “Reflection was the real intensity; reflection was an indiscreet opening of doors.”19 Reflecting on Inness’s late landscapes requires a type of engagement rarely experienced in American art, one that asks us to set aside assumptions about the traditional roles of color, space, form and viewer engagement. Inness draws us into his prismatic network of ideas, ideas grounded in but never beholden to Swedenborgian metaphysics, and presents entirely new ways of seeing ourselves in nature. In our relationship to George Inness, reflection remains “the real intensity.”


1. Kenneth Clark, “The Artist Grows Old,” Daedalus (Winter 2006), p. 86.

2. For further discussion on this subject, see Maynard Solomon, Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003).

3. Henry James, The Sacred Fount (1901; reprint New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 54.

4. The gift situates the Clark, already renowned for its superb collection of American art, as a major center for the study of Inness’s work.

5. Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery,” American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836); reprinted at

6. George Inness, A Letter from George Inness to Ripley Hitchcock [23 March 1884] (New York: privately printed, 1928); reprinted in Adrienne Baxter Bell, ed., George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2006), p. 129.

7. “Mr. Inness on Art-Matters,” Art Journal 5 (1897): 374-77; reprinted in Bell, ed., George Inness: Writings and Reflections, p. 75.

8. “A Painter on Painting,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 56 (February 1878): 458-61; reprinted in Bell, ed., George Inness: Writings and Reflections, p. 67.

9. “Mr. Inness on Art-Matters,” reprinted in Bell, ed., George Inness: Writings and Reflections, p. 79.

10.  Ibid.

11.  George Inness, “Colors and their Correspondences,” New Jerusalem Messenger 13:20 (13 November 1867): 78-79; reprinted in Bell, ed., George Inness: Writings and Reflections, p. 112.

12.  Ibid., p. 113.

13.  Michael Quick, George Inness: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2007), vol. 2, pp. 60, 424.

14.  Maurice Tuchman, “Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art,” in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), p. 35.

15.  Quoted on the website for Kupka’s The Yellow Scale, c. 1907, oil on canvas, 31 x 29¼ inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Audrey Jones Beck. See

16.  Inness presented a kindred back-turned figure in Christmas Eve (Winter Moonlight) (1866, Montclair Art Museum). It seems to herald his deeper engagement with the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. For further analysis, see Adrienne Baxter Bell, George Inness and the Visionary Landscape (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2003).

17.  James Elkins, “Marks, Traces, Traits, Contours, Orli, and Splendores: Nonsemiotic Elements in Pictures,” Critical Inquiry 21 (Summer 1995), p. 822.

18.  Ibid., pp. 832, 834.

19.  Henry James, The Sacred Fount, p. 54.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1