George Inness was a mid Nineteenth Century landscape painter who is claimed to have been a member of the Hudson River School, but he in general avoids the craggy rocks and the majestic vistas that characterize that school from Durant through Bierstadt, and instead offers up paintings filled with color and expanses of field that make a viewer appreciate the beauty of being in the midst of a landscape, and so his paintings are a good way to enter into the question of whether what makes a landscape painting beautiful is the landscape itself or the balance of aesthetic forces as those are arranged by the painter.
The most well known of Inness’ paintings is a mid career one, “The Lackawanna Valley”, from 1855. It is usually interpreted for its social significance. It shows a railroad train leaving its roundhouse to make its way between gentle hills recently denuded of trees, only their stumps left, and those supposedly to be soon removed. A boy sits on a hillside, taking all of this in, which is a characteristic device of American landscapes, but also here suggests that what the boy views is all part of his consciousness, and so we have a portrait of the intrusion of civilization upon nature, that process both inevitable and maybe not too sad, in that it leaves so much scenery to be seen all in one gulp.
What can also be said of the picture, however, is that it is part of Inness’ continuing aesthetic. The sun shines down on the peaceful scene without glare or shadow. The tree stumps are clearly outlined. The valley is quiet, no animals running about, except for the viewer’s sense that the railroad train may itself not be silent, but chugging along and perhaps even whistling. Nature and civilization are, at least at this point, in harmony, and so the viewer should not read backward and see the bustle of trains and commerce across the countryside, but only a pleasant diversion by some man made motion that is of a sort not to be found in nature, but which nature could provide if we were presented with a waterfall or the drone of cattle or bees. Civilization is still centered within a companionable nature. There is a town beyond the roundhouse, whose smoke echoes that of the train, and there are dirt roads as well as the railroad to carry traffic. There are copses of trees and one particularly elegant tree on the left foreground of the picture and close to where the boy is sitting.
Very restful picture and one can say pretty picture, but why? Well, first of all you could look at this scene from any number of vantage points, though maybe not from the center of town, and still come away with a sense that it is a balanced scene, not just of civilization and nature, but of trees and land, civilization still just another geographical feature, and, second of all, that all these naturalistic elements will always balance themselves off against one another: rolling hills against the geometric curve of the rail line, smoke against sunshine (not sunshine drowned out by smoke), trees against hills, even stumps against fully grown trees. That is what nature means and why it is beautiful: the balances are there in nature and not just in the mind of the artist.
See how Inness carries out this program of evoking pleasant feelings from nature and what may be man made adjuncts in some other of his paintings. The same pictorial structures that are in “The Lackawanna Valley” are present in what might seem a very different kind of painting from early in his career: “Afternoon, 1846”. Here the point of view is much less elevated than it is in the later painting, and there is no railroad. Consider, however, other aspects of the painting. It too is cut in half, though not this time horizontally by a railroad. Rather, there are trees that stand vertically between the pond on the left and the roadway to the right. In the foreground, a woman moves some various kinds of domestic animals from left to right along a road that will pass into the road to the right of the trees that will pass into the background. So each of these four elements--the road, the pond, the trees, the woman and her animals-- are quite different kinds of objects, taken in by the mind of the viewer as different experiences, even though they are all part of the same composition, as if to attest to the fact that wherever you look in life you will find different compositional elements. Moreover, it seems to be a pleasant afternoon, full of color, and so a pleasant, soothing place to be, a revival of the sense of the bucolic not by making that foreign or ancient, but available for anyone to see who bothers to go out a bit into the country, which at the time would not be hard to do most anywhere on the East Coast. And move a little way down a road or into a field, and these compositional elements will be recast in relation to one another without any effort by the artist or the imagination of the viewer.
Indeed, we can go so far as to suggest that here lies a key difference between a landscape and a cityscape. In a cityscape, the relation of the parts are created by the eye of the observer or the artist by the act of visually framing the picture or cropping it as the artist (or photographer) prefers. You have a new or different picture every time you turn a corner in New York or Paris. There is a new line of sight allowed by moving past a building facade and you see a new concatenation of buildings, as I suggested a few months ago was the case with John Sloan’s “The View From Greenwich Village”. You see a slit between buildings and so a new collection of things. The photographer is even better able to catch that experience than is the painter because the photographer can crop the photo and so cut out the parts of the photo that don’t suit his sense of composition, as in Eugene Atget’s early Twentieth Century photos of Paris where he lets the viewer think you have seen all of the picture because he is so straightforward that he sets the camera directly in front of the people or other objects that are there for him to record and so he has given you, the viewer, a documentary account of what he sees, when the photographer, in fact, has limited the sides so that the picture is overwhelmed by the hips of the woman photographed or by the size of the doors when if he had stepped back a pace or two, the doors would have been part of a building.
The landscape, on the other hand, is a found space, the same elements of water, trees, flowers, animals and roads always there, as they certainly had been ever since the Golden Age of Dutch landscape painting, always in some sort of juxtaposition and repositioned by moving the observer along even if only gradually or by a bit until the landscape is noticed as different. That is why it is so pleasurable to walk along country roads rather than drive through them because an auto makes things change too quickly and that is a different sensation entirely from perambulating through them. We all know that.
A picture from later in Inness’ career, “Old Elm at Metford, has the same elements and is even more understated than is “Afternoon, 1846” and so is probably a very accurate rendition of what George Inness is out to do. There are cattle on the other side of a stream to the left of the painting and a roadway which is mostly just the ruts left by carts coming up through the center of the painting to the stately elm at the center of the picture, aged with leaves growing at all levels of its trunk. The tree stands unassumingly with just some rocks at its base to make it a bit of a monument. More important is the light and the color that make the picture one of a sunkissed afternoon, the sky colored in shades of blue, white and yellow but neither in streaks or a blend and so not impressionistic at all but rather as a way to feel the haze that makes you want to drop off into a nap. The whole point of the picture is how comfortable it feels, how unmajestic, despite a tree that is stately mostly by comparison to everything around it. As in the other Inness landscapes I have discussed, the picture draws the viewer into it so as to be a participant, to be on the scene, rather than just an observer of the scene, as if no one really needed to observe this scene, undramatic as it is, except that the artist wants us, the viewers, to have the pleasure of being there.
So what has been learned about the nature of landscapes from these three pictures? There is, first of all, the already annunciated principle that a viewer can be set anywhere amidst one and see a compelling arrangement of elements, which suggests that the picture is not made by the painter but is there already in nature and is therefore objective while a cityscape is constructed in that it is cut and cropped by buildings and photographers so as to be a composition of elements balanced off against one another and so a part of the man made world rather than of nature. But what is it that composes the natural world of the landscape? I think there are at least two elements in that. The first is expanse. A landscape shows an expanse of land or scenery into which are placed other natural features like trees and animals. The expanse portrayed, whether of the Rocky Mountains seen from the shore of a lake, as in Bierstadt, or a simple field leading up to an elm tree and beyond to a shallow stream, as in Inness, provides a sense of geography, of breadth, of space, that remains with the viewer however much the picture may also contain information about Indians or how lowlands give off onto highlands, or a rutted road onto a slight rise. And, second, there is foliage, whether that is of trees or grass or shrubs that are endless in the impressions that they can make because there are so many leaves and blades of grass that the viewer cannot keep count, nor wants to, so strong is the sensation of the infinite variety in front of you, and that is so even if the artist is not as good at doing leaves as is Poussin. These two things are alone sufficient to establish the experience of the landscape as something of its own as an experience, ever renewable by one or another painter, but inherently no more than that, whether or not the artist also dabbles in history or culture. That is all there is to landscapes: the rendition of expanses and foliage, as those may be interspersed with people and man made objects, like houses and roads, and that is enough to make it an experience which people savor.