An artist’s inspiration can provide an enlightening context to a work of art, infusing it with a personal element, historical connection, or mystical component that heightens an audience’s experiential encounter with a piece. For George Inness, this statement is particularly true as his artistic vision was influenced by a spiritual movement called Swedenborgianism. When laying eyes on a painting by Inness, there is no doubt that he was one of the most talented painters our nation has ever birthed, a master of subdued detail and tonalism; he was unparalleled in his spiritual depictions of the American landscape.
Emphasizing a correspondence between the essence of something and the form it takes in the material world, Swedenborgianism was a theology that heavily influenced Inness during the later years of his career. He was consumed with achieving a harmony between his artwork and the divine magnificence of the American wilderness—an objective that tied in well with the emergence of the Hudson River School in the second half of the nineteenth century. When asked about the development of what history regards as the first truly “American” art movement, Inness stated, “It may become a very beautiful representation of one of the various forms of culture which lead mankind from the lower into the higher types of life.”(1)
His quiet scenes provide an intimate backdrop for audiences to appreciate the natural beauty of the physical world, yet it is impossible not to notice stirring spiritual undercurrent manifesting itself within Inness’s brushstrokes. I have often found myself lured into a contemplative trance while standing in front of one of Inness’s works, pondering how my own existence ties into the greater scheme of the vast world we inhabit. Herein is the powerful quality that makes his paintings so impressive—by glorifying the inherent splendor of the creator, these scenes encourage us to reflect upon the significance of our own humanity, and consider the fate of our souls.
1. Bell, Adrienne Baxter, George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy (New York: George Braziller Inc., 2006), 85.