Berkshires: George Inness’ Landscape (Summer Landscape).
Valley and Beyond
Walk in the Country: George Inness and the Berkshires
and Francine Clark Art Institute, through April 17
One of the quirky things about so-called Hudson River School
painting is that so much of it depicts subjects outside the
Hudson River valley. Among the people who worked in the style
in its 19th-century heyday was George Inness, a native of
Newburgh who grew up in Newark, N.J. and settled in Montclair,
N.J. as he neared retirement.
between, he had a major career painting landscapes—often placing
them in an idealized no place particular, but also often using
(and naming) the Massachusetts Berkshires as source material.
The Clark Art Institute’s A Walk in the Country: George
Inness and the Berkshires is the first-ever exhibition
devoted to this theme; consisting of 15 paintings from the
1840s to the 1870s, and augmented by two later works from
the Clark’s collection not painted in the Berkshires, it does
a fine job of delineating the arc of Inness’s career.
But the show also has a strong self-serving tang to it, from
the sometimes preening tone of the exhibition labels to the
somewhat self-aggrandizing panels leading into the exhibition
that describe the four Berkshire County patrons who collected
Inness’s work. Not that any of it is untrue, exaggerated or
irrelevant—but it comes off as seeming almost more im portant
than the paintings themselves as presented here.
The work, of course, speaks quite well for itself. A slow
start, in which Inness shows himself to have been quite of
his times with mannered, even cloying compositions of idyllic,
pastoral scenes, soon gives way to more muscular work consistent
with the best of the French Barbizon School that was his inspiration
in mid-life. The later work reveals an increasing fascination
with the philosophical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, which
“stressed the correspondences among God, the physical world,
and the spiritual world,” and resulted in strong, modernistic
Conceiving of the Berkshires as a “modern Arcadia” as in literary
references to ancient Greece, Inness’s early scenes present
a tamed wilderness, always occupied by a milkmaid with a few
cows or a shepherd with flock, typically framed by swooning
trees and shifting clouds to reveal a long-distance view of
low mountains across a sun-dappled valley. These large easel
paintings appear designed to look good on the walls of wealthy
salons, and they were careful not to stir up anything controversial.
Naturally, they attracted patrons.
But the seeds of the later work are there, too, particularly
in the attention to colors and particular qualities of light.
The last painting in the Berkshire section of the show, dated
1877-1878, has distilled these elements to their essence,
leaving nearly nothing else in a vague haziness. Those along
the way grow increasingly particular, even as their compositions
grow more daring. And the last works, from New Jersey in 1891-92,
marry atmosphere and simplified geometry to form very satisfying
mood pieces with strong post-impressionist foreshadowings
of the future of modern art.
Among the highlights of the show are some of the smaller pieces.
One oil on canvas mounted on masonite, dated 1851, is probably
just a sketch, possibly painted on site. The result is a less
idealized landscape with a healthy roughness to the handling.
Another of similar size (about 12 by 18 inches), dated 1858
and titled Landscape (Summer Landscape), is very lovely
and ethereal and contains no figures; though soft and sketchy,
it is painted in a confident, controlled, vivid hand. Another
little gem from 1859, titled Mountain Brook, is
only about 6 by 12 inches and features a ridgeline that closely
resembles the profile of Mount Greylock, a well-known Williamstown
The only larger paintings that retain the same degree of freshness
or intensity are the Swedenborgian ones: the aforementioned
foggy piece and two others titled In the Berkshires
and In the Berkshires (The Coming Storm). These feature
far more gutsy light, color and composition than the earlier
work, with strong contrasts, dark shapes in the foreground
and sharp spots of sunlight behind.
Balancing forms according to the philosopher’s theories of
spiritual geometry, these paintings provide an experience
of emotional equivalency to the viewer—in other words, they
are meant to make us feel as Inness did when he painted them.
With or without the theory behind them, they are wonderful,
rich depictions of the land and weather of our region, painted
by a hand that knew exactly how to imbue a composition with
the power to enlighten.
By the way, admission to the Clark is free in the off-season—so
it’s a good time of year to take advantage and see the whole
East and West: Seven Transnational Artists
College Museum of Art, through May 15
If you’re wishing to pay a visit to the Berkshires
but can’t get your arty, feminist niece to come
along, here’s an angle: This traveling show at
the always-challenging Williams College Museum
of Art offers a smorgasbord of trendy ideas in
visual art—from installations to altered images
to fraudulent history-as-art—that’s sure to please
the theory-driven among us.
It’s an exhibition that strongly supports the
notion of a new international style, as evidenced
at such world events as Documenta and the Venice
Biennale. Whether from Pakistan, Egypt or points
in between, these artists have the big picture
in mind, even as they purvey their own cultural
identities and politics.
Some of the work is pretty good; some of it kinda
stinks. I’ll leave it for you to decide which
is which—but I’ll bet you can’t remain neutral.
Stay open, get engaged—it’s all part of what it
means to be transnational, and it’s the future
of a lot more than art, my friend.