Thursday, October 21, 2010

Inness: The Mill Pond

George Inness, The Mill Pond, 1884

Though at a glance this painting may look like just another Barbizon-inspired landscape, The Mill-Pond by nineteenth-century American painter George Inness repays a closer look.

It's a painting of "ordinary" American scenery (little is overtly "majestic," sublime or Romantic about its subject). And yet, it works a subtle magic, quietly captivating the viewer through harmonious, saturated earth tones, a composition designed to instill a sense of life and movement, strong primary (and secondary) “points of interest,” and, most important of all, a kind of unifying indeterminacy that results from brushwork that’s loose, yet graceful and disciplined.

In such mid-career and later works, Inness backs away from meticulous detail to plant suggestions of his subject, and throughout this work, he rather magnificently suggests rather than tells. Inness doesn’t copy nature; he opens it up for us to re-imagine, become intuitively involved in completing his subjects out of the flickering stuff of memory and desire.

Inness is not being "Impressionistic," a style he could never embrace. Rather, by building indeterminacy into familiar, cultivated scenery, the effect is as if he is painting the here-and-not-here of two worlds, one of illusory reality and the other of mystical experience, both embodied in the everyday, and both beautiful. And yet, he fully articulates certain key objects. That fallen log, for example, he delineates through precise shape, value, and color.

The composition is stacked in thirds. Our eyes see the big tree first. If they wander into the sky, it is only to be guided back to the middle ground, the main site of the action. There we encounter the fallen log and are pointed back to ascend for another lush visitation through the passage of that tree. Following the cloud shapes again, we return down through the tree once more and back to the log, but this time we also see the figure in the rowboat parallel to it, and after that the suggestion of a human habitation on the opposite bank.

Should we be tempted to savor the deft suggestions of wildflowers and shadows in the foreground, our eyes will inevitably be led back by the log’s projecting limb to the mass of tree that first caught our attention. And from there, we can repeat the same visual circuit we have just enjoyed. This constant roaming of our eyes helps Inness convey the sense of animation that he perceived in nature and wished to express in paint.

For me, Inness is the Spirit Painter of nineteenth-century America. His trees are like spirit-fountains of intriguing color and mood mediating between earth and heaven. It's tempting to see in the composition's up-and-down tree-to-sky-to-earth-to-tree-to-sky-and-back-again circuit for the eyes a metaphor for the linking of earth to spirit through the objects of the world. For Inness, a Swedenborgian, the beautiful geometries of the world are "correspondences" that mediate between our blind mortal life and a vision of eternal Spirit.

With the molten rust-red of that oak erupting into a Prussian blue sky aswirl with warmth-tinted clouds, those mellow ochres set quietly into the background, and that sweeping gold-foil foliage glittering in the middle-ground, there’s more than enough for the eyes here, but there's a feast also for the imagination as well.

The artist’s son, George Inness, Jr., nailed this one pretty well in his biography, Life, Art, and Letters of George Inness:

“The Mill-Pond” is an upright, and depicts a tall, red oak, which fills most of the picture, and by the very redness catches the eye. It is necessary to sit before this canvas a while trying to grasp its full meaning.

"At first you are impressed only with this great mass of reddish gold, standing out in intense relief against a patch of blue sky. A pond fills the middle distance, across which are trees so indistinct and so clothed in mystery that at first glance you wonder what they are. They are painted in so broad and indefinite a way that they seem to lose all sense of individual forms, and in contrast to the “Catskill Mountains” become a mass of green, partly enveloped in the sky.

"But as you look more carefully you begin to make out certain undefinable forms, and little lights and shades that take on all sorts of shapes that you were not aware of at first. And now straight across the pond your eye catches the dam as it leads the water to the mill. The mill is not visible to the human eye, but your fancy tells you it is hidden snugly behind the trees.

"The charm of this picture is its color and mystery, and but for a boy and boat upon the lake it might seem monotonous; but this gives a spot of light and lends human interest to the scene.

"In a brilliant green foreground a gnarled and rotting stump, with whitened bark, stands out vividly, bringing to completion a beautiful composition.” (George Inness, Jr., Life, Art, and Letters of George Inness, pp. 256-259)


  1. Perfect for this time of year, Chris, when we New Englanders are wrapped in the warm colors of decay, out for a last hike, a last row before the Canadian bear hug.

  2. Very insightful comments! As an artist (and huge fan of Inness) I was very happy to stumble upon this interpretation of his painting, his intention, and his philosophy. Thank you for sharing it along with some helpful history and background. To stand in front of an Inness at a Museum is truly transporting, into that "interwoven" world of spirit and reality that you mention. Very well written!

  3. A pleasure to read, Christopher, thank you!

    About 4 years ago my husband's grandmother gave us this framed print which has been hanging on our wall ever since, however, until I came across your blog post today I didn't know much about the artist or that there was more to the beautiful scene than the big red oak tree!

  4. I have George Inness's plein sketch that became in his Tarpon Springs studio The Mill Pond. I am looking for a buyer.