Inness and an Open Experience

George Inness, “Spring Blossoms, Montclair, New Jersey,” 1891

This week, I went to the Met and saw some of my favorite paintings in the American Collection. This includes Henri’s, “Dutch Girl” and “Mary Fanton Roberts,” Sargent’s, “Egyptian Woman with Earrings,” “Hermit,” and “Cliffs at Deir el Bahri” and Abbott Handerson Thayer’s “Winter, Monadnock” and “Young Woman.” Most of these paintings are in the storage facility of the American Wing, which you can visit, although they are poorly lit. I was down there searching for George Inness’ “Spring Blossoms, Montclair.” I was happy to find that it was upstairs in the gallery on one of the beautifully lit main walls.

“Spring Blossoms” was completed in 1891 and is one of the late landscapes that holds that ‘unity of vision’ both in its composition and its minimalist simplicity of technique. Inness focuses on the middle ground plane where fruit trees bloom, and he gives particular emphasis to a larger tree to the right. The blossoms float above the trunks in a beautiful softness of morning light catching the tops of the trees. There is a shifting of color from the pale yellow of the main tree to soft pink in the intervening trees and ending in a vivid yellow-green tree to the left before reaching a house of pale orange. The sky is a lovely, airy light blue with an upper portion of pink/orange holding the eye downward. The ground plane is surprisingly dark, made with muted greens with orange and darker accents of a neutral tone. A figure loosely rendered in the foreground approaches an ill-defined object of lighter value that is closer still. Both the figure and the moon balance one another.

This painting evokes a poetic meditation. Although it looks out on the world of forms set within a landscape, it calls one to pause and reflect just as the figure is similarly engaged. There is an exposed interiority, a juxtaposition of Inness’ interior life and mine. They are mirrored here, and it is in this space that Inness speaks to me. Inness’ engagement in the act of painting expresses his desire to expand his experience, a limitless possession of freedom that goes beyond this momentary morning in Montclair. Inness shares this fleeting vastness that I too may partake of it. It is analogous to hearing an echo. Inness provides that initial voice, and I listen to it, resounding back at me. It is not as sharp as Inness’ experience, but I can still hear and feel its emotive embrace.

How can Inness say all this with a simple landscape? Inness expresses in his writings that the experience of the eye is vortex-like, meaning the eye looks at the larger masses within a scene and then slowly visually approaches the center. Think of water going down a drain. The outer edges of the whirlpool spin slowly at first, and then the water speeds up toward the center as it approaches the drain. Remember, the eye cannot grasp in detail an entire image. When it looks at the whole, it sees whole relationships but no specific outlines. But on the second pass over the image, the eye hones in on the specificity of the subject and the details in the rendering. To achieve this largeness of effect, one must keep this interplay sustained in the mind providing a more open experience. Leaving the masses loose, details suppressed, areas of obscurity, and elusive, ill-defined forms simultaneously present activates the imagination as the viewer attempts to compose the image for themselves. This engagement with the image mirrors Inness’s engagement with reality and the painter’s struggle to render both the objective truth and the subjective experience.

Viewing Inness’ Spring Blossoms, Montclair, New Jersey, 1891

Inness renders “Spring Blossoms” with a subtle complexity that is not immediately evident. He creates the significant outside edge of the vortex by shifting the upper orange cloud movement to the right while simultaneously, he uses the path to shift the eye from the middle ground forward and to the left. These compositional elements start the whirlpool moving clockwise. He also provides two darks on each side of the middle ground to hold the eye inward. He then leads the eye across the soft colors of the house and blossoms, alternating the orange, yellow-green, pink, and yellow with the crescendo of a high key light yellow in the main tree with a swoop of blossoms on top. We then return down this main tree trunk to the silent figure, loosely rendered approaching an unknown object- a fire? A rock? A creature? Only you can fill that in. We are then held at the center to be rereleased to travel a similar path.

Because Inness suppresses interest in the dark ground plane, we focus toward the middle of the composition. But there is a danger in leaving this foreground area too vague, so Inness adds calligraphic marks of a neutral tone that appear reflexive to keep us engaged so that our viewing of the ground is not too cursory. These marks are intuitively placed like musical notes on a page, and they tap out the rhythm of the visually poetic beats of the brush and help us imagine Inness in the act of painting.

Inness allows for the larger vortex-like movement of the whole to be balanced by the smaller, rhythmic movement of the individual paint strokes. Both kinetic actions reveal the painter present within the limitless feeling of expanse, the object of his deep meditation. Inness invites us to be there with him in that moment that we too may experience that feeling of openness renewing our sense of self and heightening our immersion in the present.

Value vs. Temperature

Oil study of the baby
Oil study of baby

One of the most difficult aspects of painting is how to begin. When I look at paintings in a museum, where one only has the result to look at, I try to fathom where the artist began- how did he or she initially lay-in the painting. Sometimes it is helpful to look at studies or incomplete work or late work where the artist was less concerned about his public.  Last week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and I had a chance to examine Sargent’s mural decorations for the rotunda in the museum. They are studies and are part of his late work. They have a wonderful brevity to them in part because they would eventually need to compliment the architecture but also because Sargent knew well how to begin and how each piece would be resolved.

What struck me about the studies was the limited scale of value. There appeared to be only two values on the light side and two values on the shadow side. Unity of value was paramount. But what was also interesting was that the two values had opposing temperatures. There was a warm tone and a cool tone on the light side as well as the shadow side. And this seemed to be the key to achieving form and a sensation of luminosity. Sargent appears to have blocked- in the painting laying in a warm tone on the shadow side and then adding a cool tone for the shadow edge or core shadow; And on the light side laying-in a cool tone and then warm half tones. The lay-in seemed to keep temperature a priority.

When examining the study of Perseus, another aspect became evident and that was Sargent’s use of colored edges. These colored edges also had opposing temperatures. Sargent used a red edge (an edge that was within the confines of the figure) on the light side of the figure running along the cool flesh tone, so that the cool tone was heightened by the warm red edge. On the shadow side he used a cool blue colored edge running along the warm reflected light to heighten the sense of form. This colored edge was also of a deeper value which also aided the form by turning it quickly into the background much like Manet’s technique to turn a form. Much of this more obvious technique was applied in a more subtle fashion in the final mural paintings. But it was also evident in one of Sargent’s most beautiful nudes, Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller ,which was hanging in the lower rotunda. This painterly piece carried the same hallmarks of the mural studies.

On the upper level of the rotunda hung one of my favorite paintings by Abbot Handerson Thayer, Caritas depicting a young woman with arms outstretched and two children below her. This completely worked painting contained similar traits as the Sargent’s. Observing the two children, one could see that Thayer layed-in the figures, maintaining a unity of value with opposing temperatures. The male child was blocked-in in two temperatures on the light side and two on the shadow side- On the light side a cool green and a warmer pink (complimentary tones) and on the shadow side a green and a deep ocher.  Thayer also used colored edges but not quite like Sargent. Thayer used a cool viridian edge (this edge being part of the background) running along the figure on the cool light side acting as a halo effect rather than as a way to heighten the temperature through opposition (this is especially evident on the young woman’s left shoulder and arm). On the shadow side he used a deep warm red edge (this edge being within the figure like Sargent’s) to heighten the cool reflected light (this is evident on the young woman’s extended right arm and hand). These edges of red and green were complimentary. On the female figure all was completely worked out beautifully and on the children with the utmost brevity, the two extremes evident side by side, each heightening the sense of the other.

These paintings provided much reflection on how one should begin a piece and carry it forward. Robert Henri hinted at similar things concluding that temperature had a greater functioning power to achieve the sensation of light as opposed to a constant change of value. Henri states in The Art Spirit, “the effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the opposition of cool colors with warm colors, and the opposition of grave colors with bright colors.” (The Art Spirit, p.57; see further discussion on Henri’s sense of temperature in my piece titled, Color Temperature and the Super Color, and  A Theory of Colored Edges)