What psychic baggage George Inness Jr. must have had to carry along with his handsomely monogrammed trunks. The son of one the most famous landscape artists of the 19th century, he was the "junior" to his father's senior status and also a landscape painter, but one who never had to worry about money, thanks to the elder George Inness' success and his own marriage to an heiress. Yet he seems to have made his aesthetic journey with a sure sense of purpose and vision that weren't in competition with those of his father, attaining his own success and recognition in his lifetime.
"An Arts Legacy: George Inness Jr. in Tarpon Springs" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art explores his deep connection to Tarpon Springs, forged while spending winters there and painting its natural surroundings for 25 years before his death.
It seems an unlikely affinity. Inness Jr. (1853-1926) was raised in a sophisticated milieu. Born in Paris and widely traveled from an early age, he first visited Tarpon Springs after his father (1825-1894) and mother rented a house there for the winter months beginning in 1890. It was a bustling port; well-to-do Northerners had begun building mansions on the waterfront, and tourists flocked to the city because of its reputation for curative waters. A railroad line established a few years earlier gave New Yorkers an easy and rapid (36 hours) route to Tarpon Springs. Some of Inness Sr.'s most famous and mystical works were painted in or inspired by the Florida landscape and completed in his final years.
He was his son's most important teacher and greatest influence, though Inness Jr. avoided landscapes as a young artist, specializing in animals in the Rosa Bonheur style. Cows, a small painting from 1880, reveals his facility in that genre. After his father died, he destroyed most of his own paintings, believing them to be derivative and knowing that many people in the art world considered him a dilettante cashing in on his father's reputation.
He and his wife, Julia, went to Paris, where he studied for four years at the French Academy, absorbing its strict requirements and aesthetic mandates (monumental historical, mythical or religious paintings, yes; intimate still lifes, no). He received awards for his work, and two paintings from that period, dramatic scenes of Christ's crucifixion and entombment, are in this exhibition. They reveal a textbook adherence to the academic tradition, as if to announce: See, I can do this if I want to.
But he didn't want to. In his heart, he was a landscape painter; he just wanted to be his own landscape painter. He returned to the United States to a sumptuous estate in New Jersey and, beginning in 1901, took winter trips to Tarpon Springs. As he grew older, he and Julia stayed longer, buying the house his parents had rented, setting up a studio and becoming involved in the community. The bulk of the works in this exhibition are those he created in his Tarpon Springs studio.
Like his father, Inness Jr. infused his landscapes with spirituality, but used a lighter palette and freer brushstrokes. The form of his spiritual expression was also more overt than that of his father. Sunset on the Bayou is a loving postcard to the city, showing the beautiful crescent formed around Spring Bayou with mansions and a broad promenade. Its composition is interesting. At the center is the gauzy sunset, occupying two-thirds of the canvas. He creates a second vanishing point to the left, as the boulevard curves around into a tree-filled park. That expanse is almost as large as the bayou, but almost empty in comparison.
The most moving part of the exhibition is eight works he and Julia gave their Tarpon Springs house of worship, the Church of the Good Shepherd, now known as the Unitarian Universalist Church. Two triptychs (each with three panels) and two more individual paintings are arranged in a gallery to emulate the sanctuary where they have hung for years. One set was painted to replace windows destroyed by a storm, with a nature theme based on Scriptures referencing God's promise (spring), realization (summer) and fulfillment (fall). They are romantic readings of the nearby Anclote River and lands around it where he had a studio. The other set was painted as an altarpiece and based on Psalm 23. They, too, employ vibrant colors and are infused with a mystic light.
He painted his most celebrated work in 1924, after he had become famous. The Only Hope is perhaps his most fully realized expression of his belief that "art is for humanity's sake." Painted in the aftermath of World War I, it shows a landscape of ravaged buildings, many resembling ancient temples, ascending two rocky precipices. Between them, a white dove of peace flies toward a ball of light that suffuses the landscape. After it was unveiled at Inness Jr.'s church, it was sent on a national tour and became a sensation. President Calvin Coolidge wanted it on permanent display in the Capitol. There was the inevitable backlash as non-Christian groups believed it to be too Christian.
The Lord Is in His Holy Temple was Inness Jr.'s final painting, finished shortly before he died. It has his signature green in a forest scene permeated with light. It is a summation of his philosophy that "art … molds nature to its will and shows her hidden glory." It, like every other painting in the exhibition, is lovely and full of sincerity and emotion. Critics (and that includes me) often disparage works like this, created in a time when modern art movements were roiling the collecting world. Inness Jr. hated them all, even impressionism, a kindred spirit to his interpretive landscapes. And almost a century later, many would judge him wrong and have little affinity for his lack of guile or irony. And it becomes an irony in the life and career of a man like George Inness Jr., who believed that art has a higher social responsibility, larger than personal statement. In the end, he did what all artists should do. He painted for himself.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.