George Inness’s Moonrise

dark landscape painting of a moon rising.Widely considered the greatest American landscape painter during the last years of the nineteenth century, George Inness (1825–1894) perfected the American version of what might be called the aesthetic paysage intime. “Aesthetic” in that his late works, while grounded in a kind of hazy realism, were as much imagined as transcribed from nature, in keeping with the ethos of the contemporary Aesthetic movement, which prioritized art for its own sake and visual effect over direct observation. Inness’s preferred subject was the intimate, inward-looking landscape—simple, familiar, even humble places transformed by the artist’s vision and skill into something remarkable, in the manner of earlier Barbizon and other mid-century European painters. Along with a number of American artists later grouped under the neologism Tonalists, Inness created personalized, evocative images presented without a clear and particular concentration or focal point, in which interest is apportioned evenly across the picture plane. As a result, a viewer’s attention is devoted less to a discrete, privileged subject than to the general effect of the work as a whole. In this way, Tonalist artists presented a self-consciously artistic, ostensibly modern alternative to the fine detail, high finish, and formal detachment of the earlier Hudson River School.

Moonrise is a seminal expression of Inness’s mature style, the culmination of a gradual evolution that began with the artist’s move away from the classically descriptive compositions with which he began his career, exemplified by Pastoral Scene of 1857, the earliest of five Inness canvases now at Princeton. Inness’s late work was expressly informed by the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist-theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed all things are spiritually charged and that the earthly, material world is continuous with another heavenly, mystical realm. The artist sought to combine the two in a visual approximation of the “correspondence” Swedenborg posited between them. Moonrise epitomizes the hazy, twilight ambience—painstakingly achieved through successive glazing and reworking of the paint surface—Inness employed to achieve this end, in which matter and atmosphere seem melded together in a scene at once palpable and intangible.

landscape painting with two figures in the center surrounded by trees on both sides with mountains in the background.Inness developed the richly resonant effect of paintings such as Moonrise by completely changing his working method around 1883. In place of conventional artistic practice, in which layers of paint are successively added to produce form and detail, Inness now began his compositions by covering his canvases with a single color of thinned paint, which he would rub, scratch, or otherwise remove in a subtractive process to create a work’s basic forms. These were subsequently augmented through the addition of black for deep shadows, touches of white for the strongest highlights, and a very limited amount of one or two local colors. The end result was a design that was completely unified in terms of a single harmonious tone.

Historically, Moonrise has been much admired, and the artist himself returned repeatedly to it—apparently at one point adding and then effacing a small figure at center left, whose vestigial presence is barely discernible under certain viewing conditions. Thomas B. Clarke, a leading collector of American art and both an advocate and intimate of Inness, recalled of the artist’s engagement with Moonrise, “He often returned to the canvas to work upon it, but he changed the composition very little. I remember that he personally cared for the picture, and bestowed much of his talent and time upon it.” Inness’s contemporaries were similarly impressed. Richard H. Halsted, a major patron of the artist, wrote to the collector Victor Harris, who acquired Moonrise in 1917 (and whose children donated another Inness masterpiece, Home of the Heron [1891], to the Museum in 1943), “I owned at one time very many important Innesses, but very few, if any, of his canvases appealed to me as the picture you now own. No artist has ever painted such a moon or moonlight.” And Childe Hassam, dean of American Impressionists and a respected authority on art, called Moonrise “one of the very beautiful pictures of the world,” noting “there are only one or two other moonlight pictures in art . . . that can rank with it.”

Karl Kusserow 
John Wilmerding Curator of American Art