The Spiritual George Inness

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On view August 26, 2011 – May 13, 2012 at the Krannert Art Museum is the exceptionally rare reunion of the three remaining fragments of George Inness’s monumental painting The New Jerusalem. Begun in 1866, the painting was commissioned by three patrons, Chauncey Depew, Clarke Bell, and publishing magnate Fletcher Harper, who hoped to use Inness’s powerful work as a means of disseminating the Swedenborgian philosophy. The piece originally had the awe inspiring expanse of approximately 48 x 72 inches before it was tragically and irreparably damaged.

While on exhibit at Madison Square Garden in 1880, the painting was crushed when the building’s roof suddenly collapsed. Inness managed to salvage what remained of the painting, which he divided and revised into smaller canvases that he hoped could still stand on their own as saleable works. What remains today are three pieces of the original work Valley of the Olive Trees, Valley Road, and Landscape, all belonging to different museums. Now through the Krannert Museum’s exhibition, the full canvas can be imagined in its entirety and the mystical influence of Inness’s faith on his paintings can be explored from a new perspective.

Inness converted to Swedenborgianism in 1863 while painting alongside fellow artist William Page in Eagleswood, New Jersey. Inness had first spent time with Page in 1851 while traveling in Italy, but it was not until they painted side by side in New Jersey that Inness fully committed to the Swedenborgian faith and the uniquely mystical technique that it had inspired in Page. Quick writes, “Page thus gave Inness a fresh concept of nature as a place of divine harmony and peace, together with a technique that was designed to create paintings full of this same harmony and balance.” Swedenborgian beliefs held that the earth is a part of the Lord’s Kingdom and that the love and wisdom of the Lord is manifested in nature. Quick explains that this belief was instrumental in “Inness’s most sincere objective of interpreting landscape in spiritual terms, according to his altered understanding of the spiritual dimension in nature that followed his conversion.” Under the influence of Page, Inness’s newfound mysticism began to infuse his paintings.

Inness abandoned the sculptural forms of his previous work and instead embraced rich color applied with softer brushwork to create a unifying atmospheric effect. Page taught Inness a glazing technique learned from the Old Masters that piled semi-translucent layers of color onto the canvas. These delicate glazes created an ethereal effect that beautifully conveyed the Swedenborgian conviction that the spiritual world is ever-present in the physical. In his above shown paintings Landscape, Montclair, NJ, 1867 and Homeward Bound, ca. 1864-65, both created shortly after his conversion, Inness allows the crisp, hard details of the Hudson River School to give way to a new effusiveness. Each glaze leads us further from reality and closer to divinity. In Homeward Bound in particular, the rider’s journey becomes an allegory for the spiritual journey. He is headed home to a cottage that is crowned by a triumphant, riotous sky. His destination implies so much more than a bed and warm fire, but instead suggests a heavenly home, a voyage to a place of ultimate peace and beauty.

To watch a video about the discovery and restoration of The New Jerusalem and Inness’s complex spiritual beliefs, please visit the following link and scroll down: http://thewalters.org/conservation/stories.aspx


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