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.”


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.

In Search of Image

As an artist, one always tends to think in images. But it is important to step back and rethink what an image is.  Too many paintings are composed as conceptions based on a rational part of ourselves ( what one “ought” to paint) and are not true Images. Image is the soul of a piece deeply connected to the soul of the artist. It stands as a hallmark as well as a guide to the artist. The artist must have a deep connection to the world in order to craft images that speak on this level. In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote: “Call the world, if you please, ‘the vale of soulmaking.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.”In this very act of crafting the image, the artist partakes in his own crafting of soul through his deep feeling and participation in the world.

Noel Cobb states beautifully in his book on “The Archetypal Imagination”,

“We must remember that image is not just some object or other out there; it is not the same as a picture, not the same as an optical, visual thing…Nor is it an optical event, an afterimage, or even the same as memory. It is neither inside us, nor outside us, but somewhere in between. What I am reaching for is that sense of the image we can find among the ancient Greeks and again in the Florentine circles of the Renaissance- the image considered as the way in which the heart perceives. (p.30)

The perceptions of the heart create image. Being attuned to that delicate movement of the heart is the foundation of the artist’s journey. It becomes less about what one sees and more about how one sees. The material world, that inspires and which one renders with such devotion, becomes the isthmus that takes us to the world of images.  And the imagination is what gives one the wings to travel there. “Without this taking in of the world, there is no awakening in the heart, no poetry, no making, no craft or crafting. Events remain events, soulless occurrences; they do not become experiences. Pictures remain two-dimensional happenings of form and composition, unless through soul they become images.” (Ibid.p.30)

“Images are angels- or rather diamones”(Ibid.)  because they are living things, embodied and particular; They have a life of their own independent from oneself. Because of this independence, one cannot just call the image forth but must await for its appearance with attentiveness. And when it does appear, such as described by Lorca, one must wrestle with this being in crafting the poetic image. One must fully participate and allow oneself to be transformed by it. One must be ready to risk all. Rumi states, “there is born within… a spiritual Child having the breath of Christ which resuscitates the dead.” A resurrection within the heart of those that see and partake of the image is what the artist is called to facilitate. “When the heart is inspired a new life and new image is born.” (Ibid.p.29)