There is so much Wassily Kandinsky in the collection at The Guggenheim that the museum has become entwined with the artist. If you’re interested in immersing yourself in Kandinsky’s peculiar vision, the Guggenheim is the place to go. The Whitney has Edward Hopper, the historic museums in Vienna have Breughel. And The Montclair Art Museum has George Inness. While those other painters might have the slightly more famous names, it’s unlikely that the Montclair museum would consent to a trade. There is something about Inness’s canvases that engender protective feelings.
Moreover, he was a local. Though Inness wasn’t from Essex County, he brought his paintbrushes to Montclair at the end of the 19th Century. He stayed for years and made the town the subject of his most rapturous canvases.
The bucolic Montclair of the 1880s was a very different place from the crowded, bakery-busy, commuter-friendly town we now know. Yet the trees and hills haven’t changed much, and the quality of the light he captured in his oil paintings will probably feel familiar to anybody who has spent time in North Jersey. Wags like to say that Garden State sunsets are only spectacular because of the pollution in the air. Inness dwelled in a purer time, with fewer particulates in the atmosphere. His Jersey sunsets are supersonic anyway.
He was drawn to twilight for reasons that transcended his aesthetic concerns. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was in the long and lingering rays of the end of the day where Inness found the perfect union between the spiritual and the beautiful. He was a Swedenborgian — a follower of a mystic brand of Christianity that saw nature as an expression of divine love. God was in the gloaming, and Inness’ canvases are suffused with eternal sacred light.
“George Inness: Visionary Landscapes” is the fullest, richest, and most telling presentation of Inness’ work yet done at a museum that has always shown us plenty of Inness, and the little gallery to the right of the special exhibition space will overflow with orange sunsets, ghostly tree lines and billowing clouds until 2023. Curator Gail Stavitsky has hung more than 20 Inness canvases in the style of a salon, shoulder to shoulder and one atop another, and let the resonances between the paintings saturate the room with emotion and color.
Though the Museum doesn’t put a fine point on it, it is possible to trace the trajectory of Inness’ development as an artist from a mid-century realist whose debt to the Hudson River School and Thomas Cole is evident, to the untamed painter he became during his years in Montclair. His late canvases are often compared to those of Monet and other Impressionist masters who were then mixing pastel pigment on the far side of the Atlantic, and “Visionary Landscapes” shows why. He broke rules and blurred lines with the same abandon; he must have had the same sort of smudges on his palette and his easel. Nevertheless, he trod his own path — one that was stormier, spookier, more awestruck, more American, more devout and a good deal closer to God.
In retrospect — and in this context — even his early work feels restless. An early painting of the Delaware Water Gap is breathtaking in its scope and precision. There is a sizzle beneath the placid surface of the image, though, and a sense that the artist, meticulous as he is, is chafing against conventions and restraints. By the last quarter of the 19th century, his landscapes were full of rich, melting natural shapes, heat-shimmer, twilight shadows and, quite often, skies of fire pouring light between black and spectral tree trunks. His Tonalist brethren Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Dwight Tryon would push further into fantasy, proto-abstraction and ethereal escapism in the 1890s, but they never attained the emotional heft or haunting quality of Inness’ paintings, or the deep reconciliation with the world as the strange place it is.
An Inness may be odd, or intoxicating, or mesmerizing, but it is never otherworldly. It’s not a dream, either. This is recognizably our Earth he’s depicting, and maybe even recognizably New Jersey. A painting like “Sunset Glow” is an exploration of a nature scene we Garden Staters have all witnessed: backlit, autumnal, glorious, with spade-like trees reaching from a swath of wind-tumbled grass to a glowering grey sky, with a slash of flame-like orange tickling the horizon. The crisp breeze off the hills is almost palpable, and the smell of fallen leaves is almost perceptible; wear your windbreaker.
Inness’ acceleration toward a personal style parallels that of many of his late-19th century contemporaries, many of whom found strict realism insufficient for the expression of the volcanic emotions they were grappling with. Yet his depictions of hillside haze, untamed summer growth, the refractory power of the sun and moon, and all the luminous chaos of the natural world never seem to be driven by a pure desire for experimentation. Instead, Inness paints like an artist who believes he has stood in the presence of the Almighty and absorbed spiritual essence, and who is committed to singing the divine melody back to the sky.
An Inness canvas feels like a prayer — and, sometimes, a record of an encounter with an uncontainable transformative force. What celestial wind guided his brush to create the deep, swirling thickets of “Gathering Clouds, Spring, Montclair, New Jersey,” or to depict the lonesome, shadowed traveler on a path through the scrub on “Christmas Eve,” or the near-apocalyptic radiance of “Montclair Sunset”? We’ll never know, but we can be pretty certain that he felt he knew. He kept his eyes on the celestial realm that he depicted with so much fire, fury and beauty.
George Inness was inspired by God, and subsequent landscape painters were inspired by his work. A supplementary exhibition at both the museum and Studio Montclair, “Life and Landscape: Inspired by George Inness,” gathers canvases by New Jersey artists who, as Inness once did, strain to capture the majesty and transportive power of the landscape. These works, which range from the abstract to the photorealistic, are on display on the museum’s first floor and at the nearby Studio Montclair. They are mostly very good, but they also demonstrate Inness’ fundamental inimitability: even our best contemporary painters can’t quite catch his tail as he charges down the sunlit road to heaven.
He told us that knowledge must bow to spirit, and the Montclair Art Musuem thought enough of that directive to place it in gold letters on the wall of their Inness gallery. “Visionary Landscapes” shows us exactly what he meant by that — and makes a strong case for heeding his words.
“George Inness: Visionary Landscapes” will be on display at the Montclair Art Museum through June 30, 2024. “Life and Landscape: Inspired by George Inness” runs at the museum and Studio Montclair through Nov. 6. Visit montclairartmuseum.org or studiomontclair.org.
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