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.

Achieving Luminosity

Figure with Yellow Drape, painting by Judith Reeve

This past fall there was a wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on John Singer Sargent. One aspect that I really liked about the exhibit is that there were many smaller works that Sargent had painted of his friends and of other artists as well as small figurative studies. The important thing to remember is that in these situations, Sargent was not trying to please a client. Sargent allows himself to experiment in these paintings and really be free to express or re-express his direction artistically. In many ways, one could see how his work matured from imitating the Spaniards to Impressionism to his mature decorations.

One thing that I was struck by was Sargent’s feeling of luminosity in these images. The feeling of light seemed to emanate¬†from the figures. How did Sargent achieve this effect? Luminosity is not about strong color, but the balance between color intensity and the neutral. In most of the images, Sargent focuses on one dominant color that carries an intensity on a foil of a pervading neutral. This neutral could be black or umber (which he used extensively in the early work) or a combination of complements (which surfaces during his experimentation with Impressionism) or a combination of a dominant triad ( a red, yellow, blue/black). This foil of the neutral allows the intensity of the purer color to really be felt. It maximizes the feeling of light by contrast. Also, a neutral tends to take on the color of the complement when placed close to a purer color. Thereby creating an innate harmony that is subtle and elusive.

Kneeling Figure, a painting by Judith Reeve

Another method that he used was his control of values. I found on observation that Sargent creates the greatest contrast of value, not within the confines of the figure, which one would expect, but between the figure and the background. There is an over-all unity of value within the figure that keeps it luminous and light filled. This stands in contrast to a darker, more neutral background. This is not typical of 19th century painting. In most cases the cast shadows within the figure are emphasized to create a feeling of the projection of form in space. By subduing the need for contrast within the confines of the figure and holding the values tight, the figure as a unit, feels luminous.

I am not saying that all of Sargent’s work falls within these parameters. But the work that sparked my imagination as an artist were those images he painted solely for himself or among friends. There he was the experimenter. As an example, the portrait of Mancini, is in many ways, Sargent’s exploration into Mancini’s own method. It almost looks like a Mancini painting. This type of dialogue between peers is most intriguing to study.

Figure with White Drape, a painting by Judith Reeve

My work of late, including these small figure studies, is a product of my own dialogue with Sargent. Through this conversation with the master, I have experimented with these ideas in order to incorporate them into my own work. Not to be ‘Sargent like’ but to further explore the possibilities of paint.