"George Inness in Italy,' at the Art Museum

Something about that Italian sun

‘Twilight on the Campagna’ (c.1851): Connecting earth and sky.
‘Twilight on the Campagna’ (c.1851): Connecting earth and sky.

The great American landscape painter, George Inness (1825"“1894) enjoyed two extended trips to Italy that inspired dramatic changes in his art. Now we are invited to savor his experience in an intimate exhibition at the Art Museum.

"George Inness in Italy" was precipitated by the recent conservation of a key painting, Twilight on the Campagna (1851) that hadn't been displayed since 1952, and supplemented by loans from other private and museum collections. It's an opportunity to bask in the warmth of the Italian sun and enjoy life then and now.

Associate curator Mark Mitchell's informative introduction illustrates the type of old master and contemporary prints featuring the Italian countryside that Inness would have known before his trips. Thirty-one etchings and engravings and two paintings present views of decaying antique ruins in the countryside with distant vistas of famous architectural sites visited on the Grand Tour of affluent Americans.

Look for the view of Raphael's villa in the garden of the Villa Borghese, Rome by George Heinrich Busse (1840) and View of Castel Gandolfo (mid-18th Century), an etching/engraving by the British artist Joseph Goupy.

The section culminates with the large painting, Pilgrims Arriving in Sight of Rome (1827), by Charles Eastlake, British, featuring a distant view of St. Peter's dome. You can sense the awe and excitement of the pilgrims. Finally, after a long, arduous trip, they're almost there. It reminded me of my bus trip from Ascoli Piceno on the Adriatic to Rome. On first sight of Rome the driver called out, "Ecco Roma" ("Here is Rome!"). Since I was the only American on board, all the other passengers assumed it was for my benefit.

Luminosity from the sky

Ten landscape paintings by Inness from his two trips to Italy (1851-52 and 1871-79) reveal the subtle nuances that made him famous as the progenitor of Tonalism, the style of painting landscape forms with an overall tone of colored atmosphere or mist. A luminosity emanating from the sky bathes the earth, its vegetation and the architectural features seen in the distance. Natural light glows from within, softening edges and seemingly capturing a fleeting moment.

Twilight on the Campagna captures the reflections of the setting sun in the sky, momentarily lighting the countryside and emphasizing a lone tree in the right-hand middle ground, connecting earth and sky.

Lake Nemi (1872) is all about light, painted in layers of transparent colors, dissolving forms into a world of reflections and luminosity. A lone monk on a narrow path in the foreground is our lynchpin, anchoring the volcanic lake, trees and distant landscape and sky. It has the impact of J. M. W. Turner's views of Venice. This was Inness's favorite painting, and I can understand why: It's breathtaking.

Ancient crater lake


Inness was fascinated by the stillness and reflections of the deep volcanic lakes in the hillside areas outside of Rome. They still exude that magic, making a trip to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, worth the time, if only for the opportunity to walk around the crater's edge of the deep, ancient lake.

During his second, much longer trip to Italy in the 1870s, Inness reached his acme of Tonalism while also developing a compositional geometry that gave more solidity to his paintings. Pines and Olives in Albano (1873), again has a monk directing our vision from the foreground, but the painting is primarily a composite of horizontal forms. I wonder: Were the umbrella pines really that dense in the era before all this industrial pollution?

American retreat


The small adjacent gallery, dominated by a fireplace, mantel and andirons by Wharton Esherick, contains six American landscapes painted by Inness after his Italian sojourns. Smaller paintings, crowded with detail, suggest a retreat from his prior Tonalism. However, Inness's watercolor study for his painting of the Valley of Cadore (Titian's birthplace in the north of Italy) seems almost contemporary, with broad planes of color and near abstraction.