“George Inness in Italy,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a compact exhibition, featuring just ten paintings, but it offers fresh insights into the career of one of America’s great landscapists. The occasion for the exhibition, which includes significant loans, is the recent conservation of the Philadelphia Museum’s Twilight on the Campagna (c. 1851), a lovely pastoral scene with white birds near a stream and a pink-gold sky. Inness spent time inItaly, as was expected of nineteenth-century American artists, in 1851–52 and 1870–74. He continued painting Italian subjects, which were popular with buyers, back in the United States between sojourns on the continent. Inness’s signature images are probably his mystical twilights in the countryside near his homes inNew Jersey andFlorida, but looking at the differences between early and late career Italian subjects is illuminating. His evolution from clear-eyed Hudson River School painter to color-mist Tonalist is obvious.
A Bit of the Roman Aqueduct (1852) pays homage to the old masters with a serene view of green trees, hazy hills and foreground staffage of peasants and cattle. The classical ruin itself plays a small role: we can just glimpse the top edge of the aqueduct in the middle distance. The veduta or tourist view was always commercially viable, and Inness painted a number of these picturesque vistas. St. Peter’s, Rome (1857) shows the silhouette of the celebrated dome on the horizon, through the haze of distance. A broken wall with a simple, graceful arch anchors the foreground, and two trees shape the open space of the sky.
Even when he includes a well-known monument, a rare occurrence, Inness is more interested in the atmosphere, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word, than in producing a Grand Tour souvenir. In Lake Nemi (1857), the peasant girls in the foreground and the buildings on the bluff across the lake are grace notes to the subtle geometry of hills and trees, the painterly shimmer of water and the freely sketched clouds. In the 1857 Lake Nemi, Inness uses the wedge shape of the distant hills to build up the right side of the picture. He refines this compositional strategy in two more paintings in the exhibition. In Lake Albano, Italy (1869), small figures are scattered like texture dots across the vibrant green grass in the foreground. The topography sweeps uphill to the right, and the trees are all pushed to that side of the canvas. The lake, on the left, dissolves into haze. Inness takes this configuration a step further in Lake Nemi (1872), which depicts a hillside near Palazzo Cesarini, one of the pope’s summer residences. The particulars of the locale fade away, however, as the scene is distilled into two basic elements: the right-hand wedge of green hill and trees, and, on the left, a diaphanous abyss of light-filled water and sky. The lone figure, a dark-clad monk with his back to us, suggests the poet-observer in one of Caspar David Friedrich’s German Romantic visions of landscape.
Two later scenes demonstrate the range of Inness’s responses to the countryside and the historical/art historical resonance of Italy. L’Ariccia (1874) is a sharp-focus celebration of the light of Italy, with the bright blue skies that drew many artists over the centuries. With a bit of aqueduct and a skyline of picturesque buildings, the scene has an enameled luster. Pines and Olives at Albano (1873), on the other hand, is steeped in Romantic mystery. A white-robed monk walks across the shadowy foreground, amid low trees, alongside a white wall. But the picture is dominated by the line of umbrella pines silhouetted against a breathtaking yellow-orange sky streaked with purplish wisps of cloud. The delicacy of the tree trunks under the heavy canopy of foliage, which runs the breadth of the painting, resembles gothic tracery framing celestial light. Inness, in one of his signature effects, has intensified color by reducing it—not watering it down but concentrating it until it smolders. Inness’s response to the expected European cultural excursion was personal and unique, as this focused exhibition proves. The show is accompanied by a sixty-page catalogue, published by the museum and distributed by Yale University Press. “George Inness in Italy” is on view February 19–May 15, 2011, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19101. On the web at www.philamuseum.org. It travels to the Timken Museum of Art,San Diego, this summer and the Taft Museum of Art,Cincinnati, in fall 2011.