Judith Ann Moriarty
One Piece at a Time

“In the Catskills” with George Inness

By - Oct 27th, 2010 04:00 am

In the coming months I will research intriguing art from area museums, and I’ll spin a tale about why I like the chosen. This takes up where Tom Strini left off with his superb summer series of just-right moments in art at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

George Inness: Painting school at Charles Allis

“In the Catskills,” oil on canvas, 1880.

Come in. Step out of the marbled hall and into the library that once belonged to the very wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Charles Allis. I like it that this intimate space speaks in undertones and who would guess that on the other side of the windows facing Prospect Avenue, traffic whips by at warp speed while a photographer captures wedding moments near the English Garden.

Once upon a time, mansions on this swell avenue (originally a Sauk Indian trail) had a clear view of the sparkling lake to the east (now blocked by a towering St. John’s residence). With winter on the horizon, it’s easy to envision a roaring blaze in the fireplace casting shadows on the room’s embossed wallpaper and walls lined with books entombed in glass cases. It seems to me that during a former visit, I hunkered down in a chair during a raging downpour, safe and sound, immersed in a book.

Today, there is nary a chair in the library. Even the ghost of Charles Allis needs sit down once in a while.

In front of me, third painting from the left and hung at eye level on the west wall, is a work (In The Catskills) I have long admired, and my devotion hasn’t dimmed one whit. If I squint or stand back far enough, the image could be a green space in Kettle Moraine or an Iowa glade yearning to be entered.

But this is a scene from somewhere in the Hudson River Valley, in the state of New York, where George Inness was born the fifth child of thirteen. His dad wanted him to be a grocer.

Exterior of Charles Allis Art Museum. Photo by Dennis Felber

Lucky for me, the fifth born chose another path: instead of selling greens, he eventually used varying shades of green oil paint to shape and tone his landscapes on canvas and board. This one is not over-the-top-heroic in the sense of say, a wildly romantic painting by Thomas Cole (over there on the east wall), or some of Inness’ obviously overblown imaginings. Almost anyone viewing this particular work may say, “Hey, I’ve been in that very spot,” even though possibly they haven’t.

What I see here is a grassy green glade for Everyman. Painted in approximately 1880, it is in the vein of his later work and was purchased in 1909 from the Noe Art Galleries on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Since the purchase, it has been placed under a sheet of glass — a practical touch but one that detracts.

The foreground welcomes me in, and on to the woods in the middle ground leading to a gentle rise far beyond. Hidden somewhere, is there a path for hiking? I’d like to think so, as the Catskill area is currently a backpacking hot spot.

The sky is blue brushed with friendly clouds, unlike the clouds of roiling thunderstorms the painter so loved to portray. Anyone who lives near Lake Michigan knows the dramatic power of a monster storm, the hopeful surprise of an elegant sunrise and, later, the orangey west-horizon farewell of that same orb, but frankly, it’s the lack of drama in this work that draws me nearer.

Inness in his studio. Image courtesy The Smithsonian Institute

The world outside is drama enough. I seek serenity.

Inness was also epileptic and I’m thinking his “storm” paintings were somehow linked with the approaching storms in his brain. He was reputed to be frail, but any artist who produces thousands of works surely had a grip on life. Most of his landscapes were cobbled together in his head. He was not a plein-air kind of guy who liked wearing a yellow oilskin slicker while braving the elements.

It’s said that his images are loaded with religious symbolism, and indeed, this seems to be so if one is to believe the online sampling of his work. Often, heavily wooded areas part to reveal arched openings to blue skies beyond (promising heavenly rewards?), and I’m safe in saying his thunder-boomers referenced safe passage under the watchful eye of his mystical God.

We need remember that Inness (1825-1898) was primarily self-taught and that he honed his craft in the days when getting cozy with Nature was in vogue.

A wanderer at heart (as a teenager he worked as a map maker), he didn’t pin himself to the Hudson River Valley. Instead he traveled extensively, lived in an Italy steeped in religious beliefs, and when he died he was laid to rest in Scotland. His son (another George) claims his father was viewing a sunset there when he “threw up his hands and exclaimed, ‘Oh God, it’s so beautiful.’” He promptly (and dramatically) dropped dead.

Ms. Moriarty is the former editor/publisher of Art Muscle magazine. A Milwaukee painter and writer, she graduated in the heady 70s (from Carroll College) with a degree in Art Education.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us