Unity of Vision- Viewfinder of George Inness

Judith Reeve, December Dawn, 16 x 22, oil on linen, 2021 (painting composed with viewfinder)

George Inness believed that a grasp of distance unifies perception creating a singular vision from the multitude of objects in the natural world. Defining this wholeness, Inness declares,

I will first endeavor to unfold to you the law of harmonious vision whereby we have true ideas as to distance or limitation. What is seen through a space at the distance of 3x’s the diameter or diagonal, or in other words at the distance of its own boundary, is seen in unity.

George Inness, Lecture before the Boston Art Club, April 10, 1875

I recreated Inness’ viewfinder to explore his idea of Unity of Vision because I was curious as to what Inness was talking about. What I found by using this viewfinder was pretty surprising, and I am excited to share it with my readers.

Here are the supplies you will need:

  • Square piece of corrugated cardboard measuring 14″x 14″
  • Compass
  • Length of string about 22″ long
  • 1 small washer
  • Blade
  • Masking tape

Take the cardboard and find the middle. Place your compass on this point and open the compass to 3″. Draw your circle. This will produce a circle that will have a 6″ diameter. Cut out this circle. Next, create a hole with the sharp end of the compass at the center of the circle along the side. Place the string through this hole, knot it, and tape it on the backside. Next, measure the string at 18″. At this point, tie the washer to the string. There should be exactly 18″ between the surface of the cardboard and the beginning of the washer. This will be your guide so that you can hold the viewfinder at the correct distance from your eye.

When you use the viewfinder, make sure the washer sits against the side of your eye. This will allow you to view your landscape through the aperture at the correct distance. Look through the aperture with both eyes. What you will find is that your eye will rest within that opening. It will no longer wander around the picture plane. Take note of how much you see. Look at the vertical distance, top to bottom. Look at the horizontal distance side to side. These will be the limits of your perception. Transfer these relationships to your canvas. You are now ready to paint!

I would love to hear about your experience using Inness’ viewfinder. Leave a comment and share what worked for you.


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Inness’ Unity of Vision

George Inness’ late work speaks of a beauty that is holistic and visionary. These late images tap into a spiritual essence that seeks a connectedness to the natural world that reaches beyond mere fact. Inness was certainly an observer of natural phenomena. Still, his work did not stop there because he felt the artist’s personal vision combined with his interior disposition gave each painting depth and significance. This is the reason we are drawn to a particular artist, because their vision is intuitively attuned to the underlying meaning of forms.

Baudelaire’s idea of “correspondences” focuses on this type of visionary discernment of forms. Forms are evocative and elicit emotions that are personal as well as universal. And it is the artist that perceives this dynamic relationship and uses these forms to render those emotions that are difficult to describe in mere words. The form itself holds a more encompassing and profound meaning of the idea that the artist, then, binds to his personal story to elicit an emotion that speaks to the larger world.

Keats’ “negative capability” hits this interpretation on the mark. Keats reprimands Coleridge for his inability to let mystery stand as it is- a mystery that we can never know in its fullness. Keats advises us to let the mystery be displayed in all its elusiveness. Inness allows forms within his canvases to remain as unknowns or to be merely suggestive, seeking to evoke in the viewer his own intuitive or spiritual connection to the forms, the viewer completing the image by bringing his desires to the forefront.

This sense of open-endedness where the image is not bound forever in a static configuration creates something fluid and dynamic- its meaning shifting as each viewer finds their own way and attaches a personal and more nuanced interpretation. But how is this done? The craftsman within me is asking this question. I have already mentioned leaving certain forms more suggestive. Inness also explains in his writings his idea of “unity of vision.”

“The one condition limiting harmonious impressions received from natural objects reflected upon the retina is distance, it limiting impressions of form and color, the former which characterizes as the latter qualifies objects.”

George Inness lecture to the Boston Art Club, “The Logic of the Real Aesthetically Considered” (April 12, 1875)

In his late work, this idea of distance as the key to understanding the relative importance of objects is what Inness begins to focus on. Harmonious vision is achieved through “limitation” by recognizing that a grasp of “distance unifies perception.”

“What is seen through a space at the distance of 3x’s of its diameter or diagonal, in other words at the distance of its own boundary, is seen in unity.”

Ibid.

This relationship of the eye to the size of the aperture and the distance at which you view the landscape allows one to see all objects with equal distinctness. No one thing takes precedence. Therefore, the eye rests and does not drift over the landscape but can see everything within its path as a unit held together by space and distance. This is, in a technical way, Inness’ “unity of vision” applied practically.

In my next blog, I will demonstrate how to create this cone of vision through a simple viewfinder. I will also show how to use it practically outside plein-air landscape painting.