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.

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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