George Inness was an influential landscape artist who is known as the “Father of American landscape painting” for his Tonalist paintings. Born in 1825, in Newburgh, New York, Inness was the fifth child of thirteen children. When he was five years old, his family moved to Newark, New Jersey where he received minimal formal education. He received a small amount of art training in his early years from John Jesse Barker (1815 - 1860). He expanded his education by independently studying the works of landscape artists Thomas Cole (1801-48) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) during his career as an engraver at Sherman & Smith and then at N. Currier. He was under the instruction of Regis-Francois Gignoux in 1843 and exhibited for the first time in 1844 at the National Academy of Design. Inness opened his own studio in New York two years later.
George Inness made his first trip to Rome and Florence in 1852, where he met the portraitist William Page (1811-1885) in Florence. Through Page, Inness learned about a Swedish scientist and mystic named Emanuel Swedenborg, who played an integral role in shaping Innes’ personal philosophy. Over the years, Inness developed the belief that an immaterial, even supernatural force generated all forms of life. He interjected his belief throughout his paintings, demonstrating emotion and spiritualism within each of his landscapes. On his way home from this personal discovery, he stopped in Paris and experienced painting with the Barbizon artists, who attemped to uncover divine intention in the smallest of features. Through this encounter, Inness was inspired to represent nature in his paintings with emotion similar to the Barbizon painters, thus beginning the journey of finding his true signature in painting.
In 1854, Inness worked in Brooklyn, New York and became acquainted with a Protestant minister, Henry Ward Beecher, who was a patron of Inness’s work. He began receiving numerous commissions and gained much fame from his hazy landscapes. In 1860, Inness moved to Medfield, Massachusetts and continued to study philosophy and to compose Barbizon and Dutch inspired landscapes with rich glazes and expressive brushstrokes.
Soon after his move, he attempted to enlist in the Civil War but after failing the physical test, he was rejected. Being a passionate abolitionist, he focused his efforts on producing paintings that reflected the events of the Civil War and his hopes for the end of the war. His paintings portrayed symbolism of peace and how the settled countryside could co-exist with industrialization. One of his most famous paintings, “Peace and Plenty” became known as a powerful example of this symbolism.
In 1863, Inness became a drawing instructor at Eagleswood Military Academy and five years later he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Design. In 1866, he received a commission to paint a series on a central theme of the Swedenborgian doctrine. His stamina continued in his later years as he visited many places throughout the United States, Canada and England, painting along the way. In 1878, he challenged the authority and traditionalism of the Academy by becoming of member of the Society of American Artists. Throughout his life, George Inness used his art to portray his underlying philosophy of divinity in all living things, people and nature alike. His fight for the rights and freedoms of people show this as well as his Tonalist paintings. He continued to paint until his death in Scotland in 1894 and maintained that “The true use of art is, first, to cultivate the artist’s own spiritual nature.”