George Inness (American, b. 1825, d. 1894), Near The Village, October, Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of Emilie L. Heine in memory of Mr. ad Mrs. John Hauck, 1940.943

By: Kevin Muente

I stand before George Inness’s Near the Village, October on the last hot day of June and long for fall. This medium size painting, 30 x 45 inches, seems larger to me. Perhaps its stately frame makes it feel more formidable. Near the center of the painting in the middle ground we see the suggestion of a man in a white shirt leaning against a tree. The foreground that reaches to the middle of the painting is non-descript, with brushwork that is soft and hazy. There are no blades of grass, but instead we navigate through tonal gradients of warm browns and greens. Inness handles the trees in a similar manner, soft as cotton candy, ethereal. The fall foliage, yellow ochres, golden yellows, and Indian reds adorn the upper half of the painting and comfort the sleepy village in the background. The clouds float on, sweeping through the space and merging  easily into the tree shapes as if in Inness’s world trees and clouds are brothers.

This painting keeps me busy. I admire how Inness weaves the formal elements together in this late work (The artist dies two years later). Tonal shapes read harmoniously throughout. Grass plains flow and mysteriously turn into a stand of trees. Buildings in the village Inness handled in a similar fashion to an overturned log in the foreground. The trees taunt their  color to the clouds, but otherwise share the same DNA, identical in size and shape as well as retaining the softness of their edges. The tree trunks divide and subdivide the picture plane in interesting variations. A lone tree illuminated by light on the right hand side resides at equal distances to the furthest yellow tree to the right and the tree against which our mysterious man leans in the middle of the painting. The number of size and distance relationships I find continues. Inness’s formal construction of this painting is masterful. Turn the crown of a tree horizontal and, voila, you now have a cloud!  On the far left side a swatch of sky, cloud bank and stand of trees are all about the same height, and completely interchangeable. Every time I look at this painting , I find more formal associations. I urge you to try to find your own, just remember not to touch the painting.

Inness depicted this living breathing landscape, in slow motion as if in a dream. Some of the tree forms or clouds resemble the dawdling, mesmerizing shapes found in a lava lamp, and are just as hypnotizing. The soothing blurred edges, uncanny timing, and rhythm  put us under Inness’s spell.  Reality is not as it seems here.  Nothing is definite, only suggested. Individual leaves and blades of grass  are non- existent, yet Inness evokes the true sensation of trudging through fields or following the falling leaves as they blow in the wind.

Our mystery man lingers for us to greet him, but there’s something not right about him. In some ways he seems more like a spirit in the way he emerges from a green field of color any chance of grounding him held in the whimsical brushwork of feathery strokes. This landscape questions the integrity of forms and appearances perhaps delving into spiritual interpretations of the metaphysical. The sense of place is found not through concrete detailed specifics as some of Inness’ Hudson River School peers sought, but through the veil of memory.


Another New Year's Day, Kevin Muente, 30" x 48" oil on canvas, 2012

Inness loved the landscape and knew it in his own personal way. He was a follower of the 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed that God existed in all things and there was a spiritual force that flowed through all things. This isn’t far from Taoism, the Chinese belief that the “Tao is both a source and driving force behind everything that exists.” As I always kid with my students, George Lucas’s sage-like Jedi master Yoda isn’t the first real or fictional character to believe in a “spiritual force.” If we examine this spiritual belief and decide to couch it as the idea behind Inness’s work what we witness is a beautiful example of form supporting content.  Inness binds everything together.  Cohesion is a constant in Inness’s version of an October afternoon. Soft edges meld and wed forms. At times it is impossible to assess where one object ends and another begins.

In contrast to the consistency of shapes and the handling of edges that allow the eye to meander  effortlessly through the composition, Inness keeps us on our toes depicting the ever elusive golden light signaling the end of the day. He gets it right in so many ways. This world he creates seems eternal  except for the note of urgency the light suggests. As much as we would love to linger here, Inness gives us a landscape that is self aware, not merely a picture of a place, but one that is conscious of the passage of time.  He doesn’t just give us a pretty picture, like most banal landscapes but uses the landscape, or should  I say his idea of the landscape, to awaken emotions and edify his viewers to his religious and philosophical beliefs.

This painting embodies a sense of the mystic, and the modern. Many of the forms we see have multiple dualities. They read  as clouds, trees, or ground while simultaneously retaining the physicality of simply being paint.  I remember a discussion I had with some friends almost twenty years ago when we discovered that you could find a million mini Mark Rothkos if you were to dissect an Inness. Inness’s desires harbor modern sensibilities. He aims for truth, perhaps not of reality but one of a much more poetic nature.  This forest, field, and village are reshaped from nature itself and improved upon to evoke a more perfect sense of an October day. And this is the day I always dream about, the day that defines October. The day—and there are a few of these days that I love—with afternoon light melting away and my dog running towards the golden forest, both of us knowing that November will not be this hospitable.




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