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George Inness: The Greatest American Landscape Artist?

By Edited May 15, 2015 1 2

George Inness was born in Newburg, New York in 1825. His father was John William Inness, a farmer, and his mother, Clarissa Baldwin. His family decided to move to New Jersey when he was five years old. By his teens, Inness had worked closely with a painter by the name of  John Jesse Barker. He then worked in New York City as a map engraver. 

In the mid-1840s, Inness attended classes at several design academies, including the National Academy of Design. Luckily, his work debuted there in 1844 and by 1848 he was able to open his own art studio in New York City. He married Delia Miller in 1849, but she unfortunately died a few months later. The next year he married Elizabeth Abigail Hart and they both had six children together.

During this time Inness made two visits to Europe, and lived in Florence and Rome for a while. During his career, Inness painted in different styles ranging from objective landscapes to personal and emotional impressions of nature. While in Italy, Inness developed two distinct styles of painting. One style included his great eye for detail and the other included his regard for mass rather than detail.

In 1854, Inness visited France, where he was intrigued by a group of landscape artists from the Barbizon School. These artists painted in a more free-flowing style, which was something that Inness had not yet explored. Some of his work had caught the attention of a French landscape painter named Regis Francois Gignoux. Eventually they would both study together. That same year his son George Inness Jr. who also became a landscape painter of note, was born in Paris.

Under the influence of the Barbizon School, Inness tried to create a more natural and free style of painting. One of Inness’s works in this style is called “Peace and Plenty,” a harvest scene with broad brush strokes.

The Lackawanna Valley

During the mid-1850s, Inness was hired by a major American Railroad to create paintings which documented the progress of the company and the demographics of the areas that it operated through. The paintings also specifically showed characteristics of how machine and nature both merged. Inness's famous painting titled “The Lackawanna Valley”, which was painted in 1855, shows the railroad operating in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Inness moved to Medfield, Massachusetts from New York City in 1860. He had enough funds to purchase a barn and convert it into an art studio. In 1864 Inness moved back to New Jersey where he converted to a religion called Swedenborgianism. This religion affected Inness’s work in many ways. His paintings became more intimate with the dramatic effects of light and surroundings. He believed that, “The true purpose of the painter is simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which the scene made on him.” Inness began to express himself in a more solemn state where his images were transformed from solid objects or beings, to blurred or muted objects.

Swedenborgianism was based on the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg later established the religion called Swedenborgiansim. This new religion allowed Inness to change his ideas and switch to a style of artwork that reflects the spiritual and melancholy attitude towards nature. Inness used solid objects in the beginning of his painting career. As Inness became more experienced, Swedenborgianism slowly took over his ideas and beliefs and most importantly his artwork. Swedenborg had affected Inness physically and mentally. Mentally, Inness was brainwashed by this new religion. This religion had him so brainwashed that his artwork directly reflected the religion. Inness began to make solid objects become blurred smudges. This new idea showed how nature would go through different stages and moods. Swedenborgianism is primarily what Inness is known for. It was a new idea that allowed him to expand his knowledge and talent. It also had the ability to bring his artwork to a new level.

Inness was a perfectionist to a certain degree. Inness found it difficult when a painting was almost completed. He would work on a painting and rework it. According to Inness, his paintings have been a work in progress. After he completed a painting and had no further interest in it, he would paint over it. It is known that Inness sometimes painted as many as six different paintings using one canvas.

Lake Albano

Over the next few years, he was hired as an art teacher in Boston and then returned to Europe in 1870. He returned to New York in 1878 and took a studio in the New York University Building. He then participated in a major Paris art show. By this time, Inness's work was well-known, not just in the U.S., but in Europe as well. Many of his paintings placed him among the best and most successful landscape painters in America.[1]

Lake Nemi

In 1884, the American Art Association organized an exposition which brought him more acclaim in the United States. He even earned a gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Inness had the capability to use his experiences in the United States and Europe greatly to his advantage. While he learned from experience and his struggles in life, he had the knowledge and determination to change things around and always came up with a plan to overcome them. Unfortunately, on August 3, 1894 George Inness died while he was in Scotland. Following his death, a public funeral was held for Inness at the National Academy of Design.

His life was full of hardships, mainly due to his mental illness. He was a man of courage, intelligence, and endurance. He also had the ability to take an idea mix it with his profession. These reasons, all show why Inness is known all around the world today. His ideas of Swedenborgianism, eventually modified his overall strategy of his artwork and ultimately led him to so much success. 

Today, you can find some of his masterpieces at the Yale University Art Gallery, The Waters Art Museum, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Art Institute Museum of Chicago, The Brooklyn Museum and a handful of others as well.



May 19, 2015 10:12am
Wow, just read your article on Inness and as a person who was once an art critic, I loved the way you handled the history. Great job so a big rating for you and a new follower.
May 22, 2015 1:14pm
Thanks Marlando, I appreciate the comment.
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  1. Adrienne Baxter Bell George Inness and the Visionary Landscape. New York City: George Braziller Inc.; 1st edition, 2015.

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