The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

3. Inness and Italy

NICOLAI J. R. CIKOVSKY, National Gallery of Art

The most profound influence on George Inness' style--the one that most decisively and pervasively shaped the appearance of his art, and the one for which he was the most important agent in America during the second half of the nineteenth century--was French art of the Barbizon school. Rousseau, Diaz, Dupré, Troyon, Corot, Daubigny, and others are the artists that his own works suggest, the ones whose names commonly appeared in the discussion of Inness' art in his time and in ours, and the ones whom he himself invoked: "Among the French artists, undoubtedly, have been found the best works of art," he said (only a few years after he had spent his longest time in Italy). 1

But if France figured as largely in Inness' painting as it did in that of any other American artist of the nineteenth century--with the exception only of those who actually expatriated themselves to France--Italy had an equal importance for him, although different in kind. He spent more time by far in Italy than he did in France. France undoubtedly supplied the chief ingredients of Inness' style, but Italy exemplified Inness' ideal landscape. More than France, more still than the wilderness landscape of America, the "civilized" landscape of Italy was, to use his word, the kind that Inness believed was the most "significant." 2 The measure of that is that in Italy he painted some of his finest landscapes, and, what is more, some of the finest landscapes painted by any American artist in Italy. If "among the French artists" Inness found the best art, it was among Italians--or those touched by Italy--that he found the best, the most admirable, artists.

Italy meant something profoundly important to Inness before he ever actually saw it. For Italianate art was his first artistic model. In an article published on the eve of his departure for his second trip to Italy in 1870 an unidentified writer recounted Inness' artistic beginnings about twenty- five years earlier, in the 1840s when he was in his twenties:

His love of pictures was always a passion with him, and his earliest art friend was an old volume on landscape painting which he found one day among his father's books. This he used to read, re-read, and dream about. It . . . talked of the glories of Claude. . . . It was easy to be a Claude, George thought, and he hugged the old volume to his heart, and he read it once again, and again he dreamed over it. 3

This is not a romantic invention. The story surely came from Inness himself, and we can see in Inness' early art the visible results of his reading and dreaming about, and looking at, Claude. For his early paintings are unmistakably touched by the formulas of Claudian Italianate landscape--so much so that in 1848 a critic said Inness' paintings at the annual National Academy of Design exhibition were literal copies of Claude. 4 That was not true. But it indicates how closely Inness identified with, and how quickly and completely he had absorbed, the formal principles of Italianate models (which at this point, since he had not yet been to Europe, must have been in the form of copies or prints).

Inness' attraction to earlier art was to large extent, of course, a pedagogical necessity, his way of learning how to paint in the absence of other means of instruction, which were still scarce in America. Periodic disruptions because of seriously poor health also interfered with his systematic study. But that attraction also signified something else. It was a way of learning how to paint that, at about the middle of the century when Inness

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