The Monk by George Inness

The Monk by George Inness (1873)

For my artist today I had decided to cross the Atlantic and look at the work of an American painter.   I have always liked the beautiful landscape works of the Hudson River School artists and so I dipped into my book, which featured these painters and came up with George Inness.  I particularly liked his superb and beautiful painting entitled Our Old Mill, which I had considered for today’s offering.  It was only when I was researching his life and his works of art that I came across a hauntingly beautiful work of his entitled The Monk.  It had little to do with the landscapes along the Hudson River but it was just too good to ignore.  So today my featured artist is an American who was famous for his American landscapes, but you will just have to forgive me for abandoning those works.  However I am sure that My Daily Art Display featured painting today will impress you.

George Inness was born in Newburgh, New York in 1825.  He came from a very large family being the fifth of thirteen children of John William Inness, a farmer, and Clarissa Baldwin.   In 1829 when George was just five years old the family moved to Newark, New Jersey.  Inness began his artistic education at the age of fourteen when he received tuition from an itinerant artist, John Jesse Barker.  Later he would work as a map engraver in New York and during the summer of 1843,  he studied under the French painter, who had recently arrived from France, Régis-François Gignoux.  From this he developed a great interest in art and enrolled at the National Academy of Design, where Gignoux taught, and the following year he exhibited his first work at the Academy.  This was to be the beginning of a great partnership between the artist and the Academy.

In 1848 he opened his first studio in New York and he received his first commission.  The following year he married Delia Miller but sadly she passed away a few months later.   In 1850, at the age of twenty-five Inness marries Elizabeth Abigail Hart and the couple go on to have six children.  The patronage of Ogden Haggerty allowed him to take a trip to Italy where he was able to paint and study the work of the great Italian masters.  Once there, he fell in love with the beautiful Italian landscape.  In all, he spent fifteen months in Rome and took the opportunity to study the works of the great landscape artists such as Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.  Whilst in Rome he rented a studio, which was in the same building as the American painter and portrait artist William Page who had arrived in the Italian capital two years earlier.

In 1853 Inness moved to Paris and began studying the work and technique of the French Barbizon landscape painters and soon Inness became the leading American exponent of the Barbizon-style of painting. His main influence was the work of The French painter, Pierre Étienne Théodore Rousseau, which totally captivated him. The Barbizon-style of painting, which uses loose brushwork and places an emphasis on mood, became part of the artist’s tools to create the luminous and atmospheric landscapes that eventually established Inness’ trademark.  A year after the couple settled in Paris, their son George Junior was born.  He would later become a leading landscape painter.

During the 1850’s, Inness received a lucrative commission from the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroads.  The train operator wanted him to record and portray the progress of DLWRR’s growth in early Industrial America. George Inness and his family settled in the small town of Medfield, a suburb of Boston, where they remained for five years.  It was during this time that Inness completed what art critics believed were some of his best paintings.   In 1864, he was on the move once again.  The family moved to the town of Eagleswood in New Jersey where he taught art.   He made many trips to Europe, especially France and Italy where he lived between 1870 and 1874 before he returned to America and settled in Montclair, New Jersey.

In 1894 he and his family made a trip to Europe, visiting Paris, Munich and Baden-Baden before arriving in Scotland where on August 3rd he and his son visited the famous beauty spot of Bridge of Allan.  In Adrienne Baxter Bell’s biography of Inness entitled, George Inness and the Visionary Landscape she recounts the time as described by Inness’ son:

“…My father threw up his hands into the air and exclaimed ‘My God oh, how beautiful!’ fell to the ground and died minutes later….”

George Inness died aged 69.  His funeral was held at the National Academy of Design in New York City and he was buried in West Orange, New Jersey.

George Inness painted today’s featured work, entitled The Monk, in 1873.  Without doubt this can only be described as a haunting work and one of his best paintings.  The setting of the painting is thought to be a secluded corner of the Villa Barberini, which is near the pope’s summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and lies a little distance south of Rome.  Just to the right of centre in the foreground we see the small figure of a cowled monk, holding a staff, as he walks within the walled garden.  He is diminutive in comparison to the tall stone wall behind him and further back, the cluster of tall slender pine trees that we see in the middle distance.   Inness often painted just the odd figure in his landscapes.  In most cases they would be solitary figures with a degree of anonymity.  Look how Inness has portrayed the pine trees with their unusual shaped branches.  They stand out so well against the brilliant yellow-ochre sky.  The bright yellow light also filters between the slim branches which rise vertically to support the tree canopies.

I like this panting.  I like the evocative nature of the depiction of the lone monk.  I suppose it is his white cowl which gives the painting a ghostly feel. The painting can be found in the Addison Gallery of American Art, at the Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.  The Phillips Academy is unique among secondary schools in the United States in as much as it is home to two museums, each of which is dedicated to educating and enriching its student community while also serving as a resource to the general public.