A Painter of Our American Innocence

By Leon Castner, ISA CAPP

One of the greatest American painters of our area was born in Newburg, New York in 1825. After a short time his parents moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he learned drawing and painting with oil. He showed artistic talent at a young age, but was pushed into running the local family grocery. He was a failure.

Fortunately at the age of twenty he was allowed to study for a month in the studio of Regis Gignoux. It was all the regular schooling he was ever able to receive. In 1845 he opened up a studio in New York City. Two years later, with the help of a friend, he was able to visit Europe. In 1854 he moved to Paris. He became a foreigner.

Less than ten years later he returned with his wife and settled in Medfield, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. He painted some of his best-known landscapes during that stay. A short time later he was on the move again. This time back to New Jersey and New York. He was chosen a National Academician in 1868. He was recognized.

Europe called again and for four years he resided once again in Rome, until 1875. His painting "American Sunset" was selected as a representative work of American art for the exposition of Paris. Many other works were exhibited and chosen for awards. He returned to New Jersey and spent the last twenty years of his life maintaining studios in New York while he lived in Montclair. He was an American.

His work is done in two distinct styles. The first shows more technical detail and finish. The second, for which he is usually known, is a more shadowy, overall romantic depiction of nature and the inherent goodness and wonder in it. The philosopher Swedenborg reportedly influenced him. Many of his paintings have a mystic feel and create a mood. He was distinctive.

His works include views of the Delaware Water Gap, The Lackawanna Valley, An Old Railway in Long Island, and another, one of his most famous, "A Passing Storm." Many scenes along the Hudson River were painted, often in a very idealized and romantic way. Kind of makes the area seem like a pristine and virgin national alpine forest. It has been said that he represented the aspects of nature in the American climate with great feeling, color and light, and technical expertise. He was a master.

Once he was commissioned to paint a scene for the president of the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad. The president wanted to showcase his railway and memorialize it in canvas. Instead he painted a lovely valley scene with misty hills and tranquil vistas. The train was but a small dot on the horizon with one lone engine churning through the more majestic cornfields. The president was not pleased. The work was redone. He was a visionary and romantic.

Almost all museums in the United States have one of his works. They often come up at auction. The Montclair Art Museum (a great place to visit) has many of his on view. He after all, was considered one of the leaders of the Hudson River School of painting.

Not too many great painters have called this area their home. Fewer still have painted scenes we can recognize and appreciate. This painter did until his death in 1894. He was George Inness.

Many people start out as failures at one thing but become experts at another. Roadblocks and obstacles become stepping-stones and gateways. They respond in positive ways and are carried on by an inward drive, often misunderstood by others. George may have been one of those people. Not because he was a failure at running a grocery store. I probably would have failed as well. There was something else. George was an epileptic.