The painter George Inness is known for hazy atmospheres, soft colors, and blurred forms in prosaic landscapes that seem quite unlike the detailed and dramatic vistas of his peers in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. While Inness's career followed similar patterns to theirs, Rachel Ziady DeLue ascribes his divergent style to his unique "scientific" system of painting. DeLue's book successfully restores awareness of what contemporaries considered the strangeness and idiosyncrasy of Inness's art. She argues that Inness is important because his very oddities demonstrate that American nature was a place open not only to statements of national identity, but to artists and writers who wanted to theorize how the world worked, by experimenting with science, religion, and the limits of perception.
The book is not a biography, nor organized chronologically, as DeLue believes sociopolitical circumstances say little about picture-making. Instead, the first three chapters offer an intellectual history of Inness's philosophy, painstakingly uncovering his construction in words and paint of a model for "spiritual sight" (3). As a self-proclaimed metaphysician, Inness's artistic theory and practice drew on both Emanuel Swedenborg's doctrine of correspondences between the spiritual and the natural, and contemporary optics. By literally reforming vision, DeLue argues, Inness intended his art to bring the viewer's perceptions closer to the divine. DeLue sympathetically and comprehensively accounts for the convoluted psychological and physiological strands informing Inness's thought, and is equally attentive to how his process of painting exemplified his aims. Subsequent chapters turn to Inness's earlier, more conventional picturesque and allegorical pictures, on which she can then project the same struggle—albeit through poetry and moral associationism—to create an alternative model for acquiring knowledge of the world. DeLue's analysis of the terms of nineteenth-century [End Page 149] art criticism, a source she effectively exploits throughout, culminates in a final chapter on Inness's "signature" pictures of the late 1880s and 1890s. She convincingly shows that the Impressionist way of seeing pushed him to emphasize the anti-realist, artificial ordering of his own compositions.
Inness was no outsider. His desire for art to elevate viewers, educating their vision away from material interests and toward lofty spiritual or social perspectives, was shared, as DeLue notes, by friends and patrons like Henry Ward Beecher and Fletcher Harper of Harper's Weekly, as well as by much Progressive thought of the later nineteenth century. Influential critics in New York's decorative and symbolist circles embraced Inness, which suggests that his practice of art could indeed be normalized by comparison, if not to the Hudson River School, then as DeLue implies, to artists like Albert Pinkham Ryder, John La Farge, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. They too rejected the vulgarity of the real and the eclecticism of the academy in favor of a richly-colored artful ideal unavailable to those with less godlike perceptions. Her book is thus valuable for anyone interested in how nineteenth-century spirituality and aesthetic theory, in reaction to their increasing exclusion from empirical science, converged in an effort to redefine truth and nature on their own terms.