Wednesday, August 18, 2010

George Inness: Hazy Morning, Montclair

When people talk about "poetry," "atmosphere" or "mood" in landscape painting, they usually mean an evocative quality that privileges indeterminacy, ambiguity, even mystery over precision and clarity. Such paintings imply more than they say, drawing the viewer through suggestion and imagination into the painting's "world apart."

Hazy Morning, Montclair, by American painter George Inness (May 1, 1825 -August 3, 1894), exemplifies qualities that would mark a whole new approach to landscape painting at the time, a manner that came to be known as Tonalism. Tonalism was everything that the still dominant (but getting tired) Hudson River style wasn't: smaller paintings executed within a restricted, harmonious tonal range, a more intimate scope, more twilights than daylights, and a Barbizon preference for small bits of ordinary shrubs and cultivated fields that, unlike the Hudson River artists' majestic views of an expansive, Edenic North America, could actually be seen just about anywhere.

I love how Inness violates the rules of "good" composition here. He divides the painting into even fourths, the vertical and horizontal axes crossing nearly at the exact center! He puts all the "action" in the middleground, even distorting the objects closest and supposedly clearest. Most artists would avoid placing an obtrusive solid object, like a lollipop-shaped tree, smack in front of the viewer's position, blocking the view! What are our eyes supposed to do here? Where is the "rule of thirds?" Yet somehow, it works.

Inness isn't painting pretty pictures; he's imaging a spiritual "truth." For Inness, the world was a projection of Spirit. He believed, following Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, that Nature contains the expression of spiritual laws which, if apprehended by the artistic intuition, could be rendered visible and made accessible to humanity.

In this work, painted the year before he died, Inness shrouds in mystery an ordinary domestic scene in Montclair, New Jersey.The scene is constructed according to Inness' theories about beauty, color, light, and spiritual geometry (for Inness, the poetic representation of reality consisted in the same facts of nature as reality itself: color, distance, air, space, and contrasts of light and dark), but what we see is a series of natural and manmade shapes in relation to each other. It's a wonderful example of the idea that strong landscape paintings are best designed around a small number of simple, ordered shapes.

Here, there's so much mysticism and atmosphere that we almost sense that the vertical shapes (especially the tree) conduct some kind of heavenly, incorporeal energy to the earth, perhaps what Inness called "a subtle essence which exists in all things of the material world." We can surmise that the "haze" is not entirely without some extra meaning because of how sharp the barn roof looks versus everything else, including the half-dissolved figure (who, intentionally, could be anyone, anywhere) to the right of the tree. Rather, it's a device, Inness's way of communicating ideas about humanity and God.

By using semi-abstract, indistinct forms over conventions of realism, Inness metaphorically destabilizes the physical world (which he, like Plato, believed to be merely an artificial projection of eternal truth). Matter and the immaterial oscillate; the image flickers between the earthly and the spiritual. Inness has given us the dawn not just of a new day but of a new world, and to our surprise it's the one we already know.


  1. Thank you, Chris. I will be following your blog although, probably like most of your followers, I tend not to post many comments.

  2. Love your blog! I'm a new NH Plein air member and saw your post. I like both your prior posts and the new art history focus. Lots to be learned here!!

  3. Aline - Welcome aboard! Thanks for checking in and glad to know you'll be out there.

  4. Moon - Thanks so much! I should also mention at some point that if anyone has a particular painting they'd like to propose for spotlighting on the blog, let me know!

  5. Inness is one of my favorite landscape painters. Worcester Art Museum has several in their collection. Such a difference to see the originals.

    I will be interested in others you blog about.

    NHPA member

  6. Belle- Me too, and I've got to get down to that museum. I agree there's nothing like seeing them in person. If you ever get the chance, there's an Inness gallery at the Montclair Art Museum in his hometown, Montclair, NJ. The museum owns 17 Innesses and rotates them out for the public. It's just awe-inspiring to be in a whole room full of Innesses.