I wrote recently about Jasper Francis Cropsey’s Summer Landscape (1853). Today I would like to consider The Woodchoppers (1858), a landscape painting by Cropsey’s contemporary George Inness (1825–1894), another artist who came of age during the heyday of the Hudson River School.
A year younger than Cropsey, George Inness was the most progressive of the second-generation Hudson River School painters. Indeed, he played a pivotal role in the conversion of taste away from the descriptive naturalism of the Hudson River School toward the subjective, poetic, French-inspired style that dominated American landscapes by the 1890s.
Born in 1824 at Newburg, New York, Inness, like Cropsey, had little formal training. He began his instruction with the itinerant figure painter John Jesse Barker (active 1815–56), worked as an engraving assistant, and then studied with French émigré painter Régis Gignoux (1816–1882). Inness gained most of his knowledge by studying the engravings of Claude Lorrain and the 17th–century Dutch landscapists, as well as the paintings of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand. In 1844 Inness made his debut at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan and began his career as a Hudson River School artist. From the late 1840s through the early 1860s, he painted woodlands, meadows, river valleys, and twilight scenes in a predominantly descriptive, naturalistic style. Regular travel to Europe to view Old Master landscapes and to absorb the work of living artists who were investigating new ideas in painting introduced Inness to other stylistic modes. Trips to Italy in 1851–52, where he met American painter William Page (1811–1885), and to France in 1853–54, where he saw the landscapes of Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867) and other members of the French Barbizon School, moved his art in a more painterly and subjective direction.
Equally important for Inness’s development were his philosophical and spiritual concerns. In the early 1860s, William Page introduced him to the pantheistic philosophy of the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1771). Inspired by Swedenborg’s doctrine that correspondences exist between the natural and spiritual worlds, Inness began to paint with increasing expressiveness. In such pictures as Peace and Plenty, 1865, he sought to convey the spiritual meaning he felt in the landscape and to evoke an emotional response in his viewers by using rich pigment, softened brushwork, and evocative light rather than detailed descriptions.
During the next two decades, Inness’s desire to do more than simply record nature fueled his experimentation with color, composition, and painterly technique. A five-year sojourn in Italy and France (1870–75) helped him redefine his art.
In 1885 Inness settled in Montclair, New Jersey, and during the next decade arrived at his signature style—what Inness scholar Nicolai Cikovsky Jr. has referred to as “spiritualized landscapes.” By the time Inness produced The Home of the Heron, 1893, his landscapes had become almost otherworldly, characterized by simplified compositions in which blurred figures and forms of the natural world are seen through an atmospheric haze or colored veil, fusing the scene in a pantheistic whole. Inness died in Scotland in 1894, appropriately while watching a sunset. He remained a major influence on younger painters well into the 20th century.
The Woodchoppers (ca. 1858–59), which is on view at Bartow-Pell, was painted four years after Inness returned to New York from his second European trip and exemplifies his Hudson River School naturalism, when his work was closest to that of his colleagues. But the painting also embraces a range of influences from the American Pre-Raphaelite painters and the French Barbizon landscapists, reflecting his movement away from Hudson River School literalism to a more poetic and subjective art.
Here Inness captures the solitude and majesty of a forest interior in late-day sunlight, at the moment before its transformation, both literally and figuratively. Posed in the right foreground at the forest’s edge, two woodsmen, perhaps weary from their labors, rest on logs at the side of a road. At the left, a stone wall follows the course of a river lined and overhung with trees. Sheep graze nearby and in the sunlit roadway. Waning sunlight filters through the dense foliage, highlighting leaves, tree trunks, and grasses and casting long shadows on the forest floor; in the distance some twilight color is evident. At a time when American forests were succumbing to husbandry and industrialization, the evocative light and quietude add an elegiac note. The Woodchoppers is one of the many domesticated landscapes, or what Inness termed “civilized” landscapes, that he insisted upon as a subject for art. He viewed such landscapes marked by the acts of man as modern.
Inness in the late 1850s was experimenting with various influences. His naturalistic manner with strong effects of light and passages of meticulous detail is very much in keeping with the Hudson River School style, one that was soon to disappear from his painting. The lighting and textures are worked out with great care, and there is almost a hyperrealism in the treatment of the lighted and shadowed foliage.
This suggests that Inness was familiar with Ruskin’s “truth to nature” aesthetic associated with the American Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose works were enjoying a certain vogue in American art circles. A critic for the New York press took note of Inness’s naturalism when the painting was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1859, praising “the effect of sunlight streaming through a wood felicitously rendered. Quiet and unobtrusive, there is much careful study and close observation here.” At the same time, Inness’s overall bold, painterly brushwork, with thick dabs of paint applied in some areas, and the intimate, quiet view of the forest and elegiac mood reveal his first-hand acquaintance with contemporary French Barbizon paintings, particularly the landscapes of Théodore Rousseau. What Inness found attractive in French Barbizon painting was a pictorial poetry that allowed for individual expressive freedom and the artist’s imagination. The goal of art, Inness believed, was not to copy reality but to suggest it, not to edify but to “awaken an emotion.” The Woodchoppers demonstrates his movement toward that vision.
Gina D’Angelo, Art Historian