TARPON SPRINGS — The framed photographs of an elegant couple greet visitors who enter the Unitarian Universalist Church here.
The sepia-toned portraits are of George Inness Jr., the renowned landscape artist born in Paris in 1854, and his wife, Julia. The couple built a winter home on Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs in the early 20th Century and were among the most prominent residents in town.
"George and Julia Inness were here at a time when many wealthy northerners were coming to Tarpon Springs for the winter," said Linda Gradual, docent for the 11 large Inness oil paintings now hanging in niches throughout the church's chapel.
They joined the old Unitarian Universalist Church and by 1926 had bequeathed a treasure trove of paintings to the church, including two that hung in the Louvre Museum in Paris in the mid-1920s.
That such a collection resides in Tarpon Springs is a credit to the couple's affection for the area. Julia Inness, who took great pride in her husband's work, loved Tarpon Springs and the little church. She nixed President Calvin Coolidge's suggestion that the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., purchase one of the paintings, The Only Hope.
"It had been painted specifically for an alcove in the Tarpon Springs church," said Gradual.
The 11 paintings, completed between 1918 and 1926, bear the imprimatur of George Inness Jr., who often worked in the shadow of his famous father, world-renowned landscape artist George Inness Sr.
Inness Jr. was recognized for his use of green hues, called the Inness or "living" greens. The special blend of color is reflected in his 1926 painting, The Lord is in his Holy Temple, which was his last.
"Inness became ill while painting this one," Gradual said. "His family actually held his arm as he finished the upper left portion of the picture."
The artist passed away three days later at the age of 73, she added.
The paintings, Gradual said, are permeated with a sense of spirituality, sometimes seen in a dreamlike dove swooping down in silhouette over cities and landscapes, such as that in The Only Hope.
In 1897, after the death of his father, the younger Inness destroyed many of his own works, those which reportedly were painted in his father's style. He then went to Paris, opened a studio, and painted The Centurion and, several years later, The Last Shadow of the Cross. These two large, powerful religious paintings hung in the Louvre in the early '20s, but Julia Inness shipped them back to Tarpon Springs.
In an effort to raise funds for the ongoing restoration and upkeep of the treasured paintings, the church offers tours. But the collection is not seen much by the public.
"We are a small congregation of about 65 people and most are older," said interim minister Marni Harmony. "It takes volunteers and someone to organize tours."
Keeping the paintings in good condition also requires ongoing restoration work and careful attention to climate control, said Harmony. Money for that is in short supply, coming mostly from donations.
"It has been estimated that tens of thousands of dollars are needed now to restore cracks and other damages that have come about over the years," Harmony said.
Gradual said the church recently got an estimate of $8,000 to restore a large oil painting of Julia Inness, which hangs in the entrance the sanctuary.
"It will be worth it," she said. "Without her, we wouldn't have this collection of Inness paintings."