George Inness’s The Woodchoppers (1858) on Display at Bartow-Pell

Inness, The Woodchoppers

George Inness (1825–1894). The Woodchoppers, 1858. Oil on canvas. On loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation

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.

George Inness in His Studio

E. S. Bennett. George Inness Seated in His Studio, ca. 1890. Photograph. Macbeth Gallery records, 1838–1968, bulk 1892–1953, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

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.

Théodore Rousseau, The Edge of the Woods at Monts-Girard, Fontainebleau Forest

Théodore Rousseau (French, 1812–1867). The Edge of the Woods at Monts-Girard, Fontainebleau Forest, 1852–54. Oil on wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1896. A critical influence on Inness’s subject matter and aesthetic were landscapes by the Barbizon School (artists who worked in and around village of Barbizon in Fontainbleau Forest). Their example led Inness to paint more freely, with more subtle color, and to feature intimate, unspectacular views.

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley

George Inness. The Lackawanna Valley, ca. 1856. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers. This is one of Inness’s most famous early works. Commissioned by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad to commemorate the founding of the rail line, it is an example of Inness’s modern “civilized” landscape—a landscape that he wrote was “more worthy of reproduction than that which is savage and untamed.” Painted after Inness’s 1853–54 trip to France, it reveals his application of the broad, generalized forms, looser brushwork, and more informal composition of Barbizon landscapes to the panoramic vision of the Hudson River School.

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.

George Inness, Peace and Plenty

George Inness. Peace and Plenty, 1865. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1894

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.

Inness The Monk

George Inness. The Monk, 1873. Oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, gift of Stephen C. Clark in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.6. Painted in Italy in the early 1870s, this picture anticipates the formal inventiveness and visionary nature of Inness’s late style. Inness used a daring composition, evocative twilight, and a solitary monk to transform the natural environs of the Capuchin monastery at Albano into a mystical realm.

The Coming Storm Inness Albright-Knox

George Inness. The Coming Storm, 1878. Oil on canvas. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Albert H. Tracy Fund, 1900. https://www.albrightknox.org/. While in Paris and Normandy in 1875, Inness adopted a more expressive brushstroke and a more vibrant palette. He continued to develop this new stylistic freedom after he returned to the United States. Painted on the cusp of his late period, this picture reveals Inness’s dynamic brushwork and rich color, what he called “the soul of painting,” and captures the energy of the storm as it approaches and transforms the land.

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.

George Inness, Home of the Heron

George Inness. The Home of the Heron, 1893. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward B. Butler Collection, 1911.31

Inness, The Woodchoppers

George Inness (1825–1894). The Woodchoppers, 1858. On loan to Bartow-Pell from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation

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-The Woodchoppers detail

George Inness. The Woodchoppers (detail). This shows treatment of the foliage.

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

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One Response to George Inness’s The Woodchoppers (1858) on Display at Bartow-Pell

  1. Pingback: Cheerful and Bright (and Smoky): Staying Warm in 19th-Century American Homes | mansion musings

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