Essay on American Scenery
American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836)
The essay, which is here offered, is a mere sketch of an almost illimitable subject--American Scenery; and in selecting the theme the writer placed more confidence in its overflowing richness, than in his own capacity for treating it in a manner worthy of its vastness and importance.
It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic--explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery--it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity--all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!
Before entering into the proposed subject, in which I shall treat more particularly of the scenery of the Northern and Eastern States, I shall be excused for saying a few words on the advantages of cultivating a taste for scenery, and for exclaiming against the apathy with which the beauties of external nature are regarded by the great mass, even of our refined community.
[1. The Contemplation of Scenery as a Source of Delight and Improvement]
It is generally admitted that the liberal arts tend to soften our manners; but they do more--they carry with them the power to mend our hearts.
Poetry and Painting sublime and purify thought, by grasping the past, the present, and the future--they give the mind a foretaste of its immortality, and thus prepare it for performing an exalted part amid the realities of life. And rural nature is full of the same quickening spirit--it is, in fact, the exhaustless mine from which the poet and the painter have brought such wondrous treasures--an unfailing fountain of intellectual enjoyment, where all may drink, and be awakened to a deeper feeling of the works of genius, and a keener perception of the beauty of our existence. For those whose days are all consumed in the low pursuits of avarice, or the gaudy frivolities of fashion, unobservant of nature's loveliness, are unconscious of the harmony of creation--
Heaven's roof to them Is but a painted ceiling hung with lamps; No more--that lights them to their purposes-- They wander 'loose about;' they nothing see, Themselves except, and creatures like themselves, Short lived, short sighted.
What to them is the page of the poet where he describes or personifies the skies, the mountains, or the streams, if those objects themselves have never awakened observation or excited pleasure? What to them is the wild Salvator Rosa, or the aerial Claude Lorrain?
There is in the human mind an almost inseparable connection between the beautiful and the good, so that if we contemplate the one the other seems present; and an excellent author has said, "it is difficult to look at any objects with pleasure--unless where it arises from brutal and tumultuous emotions--without feeling that disposition of mind which tends towards kindness and benevolence; and surely, whatever creates such a disposition, by increasing our pleasures and enjoyments, cannot be too much cultivated."
It would seem unnecessary to those who can see and feel, for me to expatiate on the loveliness of verdant fields, the sublimity of lofty mountains, or the varied magnificence of the sky; but that the number of those who seek enjoyment in such sources is comparatively small. From the indifference with which the multitude regard the beauties of nature, it might be inferred that she had been unnecessarily lavish in adorning this world for beings who take no pleasure in its adornment. Who in grovelling pursuits forget their glorious heritage. Why was the earth made so beautiful, or the sun so clad in glory at his rising and setting, when all might be unrobed of beauty without affecting the insensate multitude, so they can be "lighted to their purposes?"
It has not been in vain--the good, the enlightened of all ages and nations, have found pleasure and consolation in the beauty of the rural earth. Prophets of old retired into the solitudes of nature to wait the inspiration of heaven. It was on that Elijah witnessed the mighty wind, the earthquake, and the fire; and heard the "still small voice"--that voice is YET heard among the mountains! preached in the desert;--the wilderness is YET a fitting place to speak of God. The solitary Anchorites of Syria and , though ignorant that the busy world is man's noblest sphere of usefulness, well knew how congenial to religious musings are the pathless solitudes.
He who looks on nature with a "loving eye," cannot move from his dwelling without the salutation of beauty; even in the city the deep blue sky and the drifting clouds appeal to him. And if to escape its turmoil--if only to obtain a free horizon, land and water in the play of light and shadow yields delight--let him be transported to those favored regions, where the features of the earth are more varied, or yet add the sunset, that wreath of glory daily bound around the world, and he, indeed, drinks from pleasure's purest cup. The delight such a man experiences is not merely sensual, or selfish, that passes with the occasion leaving no trace behind; but in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty, he feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate.
In what has been said I have alluded to wild and uncultivated scenery; but the cultivated must not be forgotten, for it is still more important to man in his social capacity--necessarily bringing him in contact with the cultured; it encompasses our homes, and, though devoid of the stern sublimity of the wild, its quieter spirit steals tenderly into our bosoms mingled with a thousand domestic affections and heart-touching associations--human hands have wrought, and human deeds hallowed all around.
And it is here that taste, which is the perception of the beautiful, and the knowledge of the principles on which nature works, can be applied, and our dwelling-places made fitting for refined and intellectual beings.
[2. The Advantages of Cultivating a Taste for Scenery]
If, then, it is indeed true that the contemplation of scenery can be so abundant a source of delight and improvement, a taste for it is certainly worthy of particular cultivation; for the capacity for enjoyment increases with the knowledge of the true means of obtaining it.
In this age, when a meager utilitarianism seems ready to absorb every feeling and sentiment, and what is sometimes called improvement in its march makes us fear that the bright and tender flowers of the imagination shall all be crushed beneath its iron tramp, it would be well to cultivate the oasis that yet remains to us, and thus preserve the germs of a future and a purer system. And now, when the sway of fashion is extending widely over society--poisoning the healthful streams of true refinement, and turning men from the love of simplicity and beauty, to a senseless idolatry of their own follies--to lead them gently into the pleasant paths of Taste would be an object worthy of the highest efforts of genius and benevolence. The spirit of our society is to contrive but not to enjoy--toiling to produce more toil-accumulating in order to aggrandize. The pleasures of the imagination, among which the love of scenery holds a conspicuous place, will alone temper the harshness of such a state; and, like the atmosphere that softens the most rugged forms of the landscape, cast a veil of tender beauty over the asperities of life.
Did our limits permit I would endeavor more fully to show how necessary to the complete appreciation of the Fine Arts is the study of scenery, and how conducive to our happiness and well-being is that study and those arts; but I must now proceed to the proposed subject of this essay--American Scenery!
[II. The Elements of American Scenery]
There are those who through ignorance or prejudice strive to maintain that American scenery possesses little that is interesting or truly beautiful--that it is rude without picturesqueness, and monotonous without sublimity--that being destitute of those vestiges of antiquity, whose associations so strongly affect the mind, it may not be compared with European scenery. But from whom do these opinions come? From those who have read of European scenery, of Grecian mountains, and Italian skies, and never troubled themselves to look at their own; and from those travelled ones whose eyes were never opened to the beauties of nature until they beheld foreign lands, and when those lands faded from the sight were again closed and forever; disdaining to destroy their trans-atlantic impressions by the observation of the less fashionable and unfamed American scenery. Let such persons shut themselves up in their narrow shell of prejudice--I hope they are few,--and the community increasing in intelligence, will know better how to appreciate the treasures of their own country.
I am by no means desirous of lessening in your estimation the glorious scenes of the old world--that ground which has been the great theater of human events--those mountains, woods, and streams, made sacred in our minds by heroic deeds and immortal song--over which time and genius have suspended an imperishable halo. No! But I would have it remembered that nature has shed over this land beauty and magnificence, and although the character of its scenery may differ from the old world's, yet inferiority must not therefore be inferred; for though American scenery is destitute of many of those circumstances that give value to the European, still it has features, and glorious ones, unknown to Europe.
A very few generations have passed away since this vast tract of the American continent, now the United States, rested in the shadow of primeval forests, whose gloom was peopled by savage beasts, and scarcely less savage men; or lay in those wide grassy plains called prairies--
The Gardens of the Desert, these The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful.
And, although an enlightened and increasing people have broken in upon the solitude, and with activity and power wrought changes that seem magical, yet the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.
It is the most distinctive, because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified--the extensive forests that once overshadowed a great part of it have been felled--rugged mountains have been smoothed, and impetuous rivers turned from their courses to accommodate the tastes and necessities of a dense population--the once tangled wood is now a grassy lawn; the turbulent brook a navigable stream--crags that could not be removed have been crowned with towers, and the rudest valleys tamed by the plough.
And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away: for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than aught which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator--they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things.
As mountains are the most conspicuous objects in landscape, they will take the precedence in what I may say on the elements of American scenery.
It is true that in the eastern part of this continent there are no mountains that vie in altitude with the snow-crowned Alps--that the Alleghanies and the Catskills are in no point higher than five thousand feet; but this is no inconsiderable height; Snowdon in Wales, and Ben-Nevis in Scotland, are not more lofty; and in New Hampshire, which has been called the Switzerland of the United States, the White Mountains almost pierce the region of perpetual snow. The Alleghanies are in general heavy in form; but the Catskills, although not broken into abrupt angles like the most picturesque mountains of , have varied, undulating, and exceedingly beautiful outlines--they heave from the valley of the like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.
But in the mountains of New Hampshire there is a union of the picturesque, the sublime, and the magnificent; there the bare peaks of granite, broken and desolate, cradle the clouds; while the vallies and broad bases of the mountains rest under the shadow of noble and varied forests; and the traveller who passes the Sandwich range on his way to the White Mountains, of which it is a spur, cannot but acknowledge, that although in some regions of the globe nature has wrought on a more stupendous scale, yet she has nowhere so completely married together grandeur and loveliness--there he sees the sublime melting into the beautiful, the savage tempered by the magnificent.
I will now speak of another component of scenery, without which every landscape is defective--it is water. Like the eye in the human countenance, it is a most expressive feature: in the unrippled lake, which mirrors all surrounding objects, we have the expression of tranquillity and peace--in the rapid stream, the headlong cataract, that of turbulence and impetuosity.
In this great element of scenery, what land is so rich? I would not speak of the , which are in fact inland seas--possessing some of the attributes of the ocean, though destitute of its sublimity; but of those smaller lakes, such as , Champlain, Winnipisiogee, Otsego, Seneca, and a hundred others, that stud like gems the bosom of this country. There is one delightful quality in nearly all these lakes--the purity and transparency of the water. In speaking of scenery it might seem unnecessary to mention this; but independent of the pleasure that we all have in beholding pure water, it is a circumstance which contributes greatly to the beauty of landscape; for the reflections of surrounding objects, trees, mountains, sky, are most perfect in the clearest water; and the most perfect is the most beautiful.
I would not be understood that these lakes are always tranquil; but that tranquillity is their great characteristic. There are times when they take a far different expression; but in scenes like these the richest chords are those struck by the gentler hand of nature.
And now I must turn to another of the beautifiers of the earth--the Waterfall; which in the same object at once presents to the mind the beautiful, but apparently incongruous idea, of fixedness and motion--a single existence in which we perceive unceasing change and everlasting duration. The waterfall may be called the voice of the landscape, for, unlike the rocks and woods which utter sounds as the passive instruments played on by the elements, the waterfall strikes its own chords, and rocks and mountains re-echo in rich unison. And this is a land abounding in cataracts; in these Northern States where shall we turn and not find them? Have we not Kaaterskill, , the Flume, the , stupendous , and a hundred others named and nameless ones, whose exceeding beauty must be acknowledged when the hand of taste shall point them out?
In the Kaaterskill we have a stream, diminutive indeed, but throwing itself headlong over a fearful precipice into a deep gorge of the densely wooded mountains--and possessing a singular feature in the vast arched cave that extends beneath and behind the cataract. At there is a chain of waterfalls of remarkable beauty, where the foaming waters, shadowed by steep cliffs, break over rocks of architectural formation, and tangled and picturesque trees mantle abrupt precipices, which it would be easy to imagine crumbling and "time disparting towers."
And ! that wonder of the world!--where the sublime and beautiful are bound together in an indissoluble chain. In gazing on it we feel as though a great void had been filled in our minds--our conceptions expand--we become a part of what we behold! At our feet the floods of a thousand rivers are poured out--the contents of vast inland seas. In its volume we conceive immensity; in its course, everlasting duration; in its impetuosity, uncontrollable power. These are the elements of its sublimity. Its beauty is garlanded around in the varied hues of the water, in the spray that ascends the sky, and in that unrivalled bow which forms a complete cincture round the unresting floods.
The river scenery of the is a rich and boundless theme. The for natural magnificence is unsurpassed. What can be more beautiful than the lake-like expanses of Tapaan and Haverstraw, as seen from the rich orchards of the surrounding hills? hills that have a legend, which has been so sweetly and admirably told that it shall not perish but with the language of the land. What can be more imposing than the precipitous ; whose dark foundations have been rent to make a passage for the deep-flowing river? And, ascending still, where can be found scenes more enchanting? The lofty Catskills stand afar off-the green hills gently rising from the flood, recede like steps by which we may ascend to a great temple, whose pillars are those everlasting hills, and whose dome is the blue boundless vault of heaven.
The has its castled crags, its vine-clad hills, and ancient villages; the has its wooded mountains, its rugged precipices, its green undulating shores--a natural majesty, and an unbounded capacity for improvement by art. Its shores are not besprinkled with venerated ruins, or the palaces of princes; but there are flourishing towns, and neat villas, and the hand of taste has already been at work. Without any great stretch of the imagination we may anticipate the time when the ample waters shall reflect temple, and tower, and dome, in every variety of picturesqueness and magnificence.
In the scenery of the we have that which occupies the greatest space, and is not the least remarkable; being primitive, it differs widely from the European. In the American forest we find trees in every stage of vegetable life and decay--the slender sapling rises in the shadow of the lofty tree, and the giant in his prime stands by the hoary patriarch of the wood--on the ground lie prostrate decaying ranks that once waved their verdant heads in the sun and wind. These are circumstances productive of great variety and picturesqueness--green umbrageous masses--lofty and scathed trunks--contorted branches thrust athwart the sky--the mouldering dead below, shrouded in moss of every hue and texture, from richer combinations than can be found in the trimmed and planted grove. It is true that the thinned and cultivated wood offers less obstruction to the feet, and the trees throw out their branches more horizontally, and are consequently more umbrageous when taken singly; but the true lover of the picturesque is seldom fatigued--and trees that grow widely apart are often heavy in form, and resemble each other too much for picturesqueness. Trees are like men, differing widely in character; in sheltered spots, or under the influence of culture, they show few contrasting points; peculiarities are pruned and trained away, until there is a general resemblance. But in exposed situations, wild and uncultivated, battling with the elements and with one another for the possession of a morsel of soil, or a favoring rock to which they may cling--they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality.
For variety, the American forest is unrivalled: in some districts are found oaks, elms, birches, beeches, planes, pines, hemlocks, and many other kinds of trees, commingled--clothing the hills with every tint of green, and every variety of light and shade.
There is one season when the American forest surpasses all the world in gorgeousness--that is the autumnal;--then every hill and dale is riant in the luxury of color--every hue is there, from the liveliest green to deepest purple from the most golden yellow to the intensest crimson. The artist looks despairingly upon the glowing landscape, and in the old world his truest imitations of the American forest, at this season, are called falsely bright, and scenes in .
The sky will next demand our attention. The soul of all scenery, in it are the fountains of light, and shade, and color. Whatever expression the sky takes, the features of the landscape are affected in unison, whether it be the serenity of the summer's blue, or the dark tumult of the storm. It is the sky that makes the earth so lovely at sunrise, and so splendid at sunset. In the one it breathes over the earth the crystal-like ether, in the other liquid gold. The climate of a great part of the is subject to great vicissitudes, and we complain; but nature offers a compensation. These very vicissitudes are the abundant sources of beauty--as we have the temperature of every clime, so have we the skies--we have the blue unsearchable depths of the northern sky--we have the upheaped thunder-clouds of the , fraught with gorgeousness and sublimity--we have the silver haze of , and the golden atmosphere of . And if he who has travelled and observed the skies of other climes will spend a few months on the banks of the , he must be constrained to acknowledge that for variety and magnificence American skies are unsurpassed. Italian skies have been lauded by every tongue, and sung by every poet, and who will deny their wonderful beauty? At sunset the serene arch is filled with alchemy that transmutes mountains, and streams, and temples, into living gold.
But the American summer never passes without many sunsets that might vie with the Italian, and many still more gorgeous--that seem peculiar to this clime.
[III. The Want of Associations]
I will now venture a few remarks on what has been considered a grand defect in American scenery--the want of associations, such as arise amid the scenes of the old world.
We have many a spot as umbrageous as Vallombrosa, and as picturesque as the solitudes of Vaucluse; but Milton and Petrarch have not hallowed them by their footsteps and immortal verse. He who stands on Mont Albano and looks down on ancient Rome, has his mind peopled with the gigantic associations of the storied past; but he who stands on the mounds of the West, the most venerable remains of American antiquity, may experience the emotion of the sublime, but it is the sublimity of a shoreless ocean un-islanded by the recorded deeds of man.
Yet American scenes are not destitute of historical and legendary associations--the great struggle for freedom has sanctified many a spot, and many a mountain, stream, and rock has its legend, worthy of poet's pen or the painter's pencil. But American associations are not so much of the past as of the present and the future. Seated on a pleasant knoll, look down into the bosom of that secluded valley, begin with wooded hills--through those enamelled meadows and wide waving fields of grain, a silver stream winds lingeringly along--here, seeking the green shade of trees--there, glancing in the sunshine: on its banks are rural dwellings shaded by elms and garlanded by flowers--from yonder dark mass of foliage the village spire beams like a star. You see no ruined tower to tell of outrage--no gorgeous temple to speak of ostentation; but freedom's offspring--peace, security, and happiness, dwell there, the spirits of the scene. On the margin of that gentle river the village girls may ramble unmolested--and the glad school-boy, with hook and line, pass his bright holiday--those neat dwellings, unpretending to magnificence, are the abodes of plenty, virtue, and refinement. And in looking over the yet uncultivated scene, the mind's eye may see far into futurity. Where the wolf roams, the plough shall glisten; on the gray crag shall rise temple and tower--mighty deeds shall be done in the now pathless wilderness; and poets yet unborn shall sanctify the soil.
[1. The Destruction of Beautiful Landscapes]
It was my intention to attempt a description of several districts remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character; but I fear to trespass longer on your time and patience. Yet I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away--the ravages of the axe are daily increasing--the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature's beauty without substituting that of Art. This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel; it may lead to refinement in the end, but the traveller who sees the place of rest close at hand, dislikes the road that has so many unnecessary windings.
[2. We Are Still in ]
I will now conclude, in the hope that, though feebly urged, the importance of cultivating a taste for scenery will not be forgotten. Nature has spread for us a rich and delightful banquet. Shall we turn from it? We are still in ; the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly. We should not allow the poet's words to be applicable to us--
Deep in rich pasture do thy flocks complain? Not so; but to their master is denied To share the sweet serene.
May we at times turn from the ordinary pursuits of life to the pure enjoyment of rural nature; which is in the soul like a fountain of cool waters to the way-worn traveller; and let us
Learn The laws by which the Eternal doth sublime And sanctify his works, that we may see The hidden glory veiled from vulgar eyes.
MLA Citation: Cole, Thomas. "Essay on American Scenery". American Monthly Magazine 1, (January 1836) 1-12
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
How 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.
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.
If 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.
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 https://www.csun.edu/~ta3584/Cole.htm.
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.
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 http://www.mfah.org/art/detail/yellow-scale.
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