MR. GEORGE INNESS, now of Rome, is a painter whose works should be studied by those who are desirous to estimate the present condition and prospects of American painting ; and it has chanced that a good opportunity for such study has been offered, in a group of pictures exhibited at intervals during the past two months by Messrs. Williams and Everett, as well as in an earlier though minor work, to be seen at the rooms of Messrs. Doll and Richards. The smaller landscape was painted about twelve years ago, and shows the artist, not only in quite a different mood from that which prevails in the later works, but with a method somewhat bolder in appearance, though less pure and refined. Imagine a weird, wild, little yellow sunset, flaring up behind dark trees, with a sharp church-spire rising sombrely against the glow; in the foreground, shepherds in blouses stand, chilled by the humid nightfall, among their flocks. All is swept in with strong strokes of a brush carrying a thick charge of color ; and a deep sense of coming night is exhaled by the picture. But, if we speak of it critically, we must notice a certain excess of roughness and vigor in the handling of the color. There is some confusion among the curling dashes of paint welded together in this rich whole, they are rather knotted and tied together than woven into a unity wherein the points of connection become imperceptible. That, however, is what Mr. Inness could do twelve years ago. If, as it chanced to tis the other day to do, we were to examine a piece of the artist’s work executed at a period twice as far removed from the present, we should easily overlook any flaw of this kind, in the perception of how much he had advanced in the interval. About coeval with this sunset is the earliest of the group now at Williams and Everett’s. It represents the conflagration of a ship at sea. On the right goes up the volleyed mass of flame and black smoke from the burning vessel, scattering flaky sparks — blazing, tarry scraps — into the blackness of the night above. A brown sea rolls and swashes in long billows, from foreground to background, and upon it rides a small boat, manned by fugitives from the burning ship. We cannot say that we are acquainted with seas of this particular hue ; but it rolls with the motion of the veritable ocean. And, what is more, the boat sweeps over the back of the wave with also a motion of its own. Not every man who can paint a boat upon moving waters can depict its gliding over the flood too. But, to tread on more familiar ground, let us now turn to a landscape conceived on a grand scale, and wrought out in a massive manner quite accordant with the size of the piece. We refer to a “ Sunset near Medway,” in the possession of Mr. H. E. Maynard of Boston, which serves to illustrate the time between the painting of our little yellow-clad landscape above, and the scenes from Italian neighborhoods which make up Mr. Inness’s latest contribution to our knowledge of him. Again the sun descends solemnly, kindling the heavens with a splendor that seems to check and overawe the twilight, hovering timidly beneath the dusky trees. Hither comes, along the grass-grown road-bend from the left, the rough figure of a man bearing fagots, and with him, though lost in ruminations and meditations suited to their bovine nature, a group of cows. They bring to us the last breath of the departed sun. To the left, the imbrowned trees are growing vague in shadow, but through the darkness show faintly those fleecy weeds and grasses that lend their ageing whiteness to the year’s maturity. A single file of trees leads the eye to the middle, where, behind them, the sky is aflame, and a still smoke goes up from a lonely house. Two or three birds dart about over the trees, and then we see the luminous clouds rising as if irradiated from the sun, recalling the vibrations of the earth-heated air on days of summer. This picture gives the whole chord of which the painter was continually sounding the key-note at this period. It is easy to see that this strong, poetic genius is tyrannized over by his moods. So long as golden sunsets melting into darksome nights moved him the most strongly, he would paint little else. Whether it was after this time that Inness produced his great picture of a rainbow, “ The Sign of Promise,” we do not at this moment recall. We are inclined, however, to believe that it was. At least, it would have been a fitting solution to the vague problem which his brush is here ever striving to express. And the series of allegories which “ The Sign of Promise ” ushered in might well have cleared his temperamental atmosphere to some such degree as that in which we find it cleared when his large view of the Catskills looms up through it. Here he deals with the sunlight and the green as if he knew of nothing else. He has wooed Nature from another side, and she has responded in ways as fresh. Many noble pictures belong to this time. The painter is not spoiled by the favors of his mistress, but continues sincere and earnest. Still, you do not know quite what to look for in Mr. Inness next; and though he will not now return to the lonely evening, with its weariness and its turning homeward, still he can surprise, by unexpectedly expending all his power upon the most unpretending subject. Witness his “ Coming out of the Woods,” in which he gives the poetry of approaching the light and the open ground from the pillared maze of the forest. The landscapes from Italy, dated this year, display a feeling and style more serene and pure than that of his earlier years. That fit of symbolic landscape which preceded the works we have just described no doubt taught him that he would do best to follow Nature, without crowding upon her own peculiar and profound significance any additional meaning. We find him now content to give us the reticence of spring, the abundance of later summer, or the pensive glory of a sunset seen behind the dome of St. Peter’s. From these pictures we gain a new impression of the native strength and independence of his genius. He does not go to Rome to paint street-scenes and contadine, but landscape, and this of a bold and sturdy kind. Here is a view of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, taken from behind a bend in the Tiber. But it is light and color that the artist fixes his mind upon, and St. Peter’s is a mere gray shade against the broad and beautiful sunset. There is a tender grace and refinement in these later works which is the legitimate outcome of a long course of sincerity and devotion. We wish we might describe how gently the painter lingers upon delicate distinctions of color in foliage, how he clothes his vision of Italian sky in tints that seem borrowed from the vesture of the pearl.
But, if all must be said, there comes upon us, as we close this brief review of some of his best pieces, a sense of incompleteness in Mr. Inness’s art. It is not that he is uneven in finish : the variation in this must be accounted for, if we regard the object which the painter proposes to himself in each of his undertakings, by the perception that different effects require different treatment. But there is a certain experimental air pervading all. The conquest of technicalities has not been completed, though carried far enough to win our admiration. This we speak of, not so much in its special application to Mr. Inness, as that we may remind our readers how very generally the same observation holds true of work by many most talented American painters. It is difficult to describe what we allude to ; but, for one thing, we may say that American painters in especial, as all other painters in general, cannot too often remember Couture’s advice, though it be addressed only to students, “ Dessinez, dessinez, matin et soir.” It is just as good advice for mature painters. A writer can never afford not to be studying language ; a painter must continually insinuate himself into the soul of lines. Meantime, Mr. Inness is leading his generation in many respects. His position in relation to the body of painters in America at this day will no doubt hereafter be placed with certainty somewhere near the high-water mark.
Modern art is not so distinctly characterized by symbolism as that of former epochs. But in the memorial sphinx, designed by Mr. Milmore of Boston, and recently placed opposite the chapel in Mount Auburn Cemetery, we have an example of fresh and vigorous symbolism in monumental art. The figure of the Union volunteer, in cloak and in arms, standing on guard or at rest over the pile raised to the memory of his comrades, or multiplied so as to occupy the four corners of the usual stone edifice, which, without any particular appropriateness, it has been the custom to build in commemoration of our fallen soldiers, has become worn by repetition, however fitting and pathetic in the first instance ; and we must be understood as fully sympathizing with the tender feeling embodied in this figure of the sentinel comrade. But even after this sentiment is admitted, there would seem to be a doubt whether it furnishes a sufficient reminder to the men of future generations. If there is any use in monuments, it is undoubtedly that, by presenting something inspiring to the sight, no less than truly symbolic of the event commemorated, they should rekindle noble memories. The offspring of great deeds, their faces should give the grand features of their ancestry. Enough, then, has been done to express the loss we suffered, and we are glad to receive a more hopeful emblem, inspired by the sense of a noble gain. In Mr. Milmore’s design, the wistful figure of the mourning or sentinel volunteer has retired to give place to a monument which expresses the sum of all. The form of a sphinx, the body of which is copied from the Egyptian model, — being that of a wingless lion, — is couched upon a massive granite block, and there lies bathed in sunlight and backgrounded by trees. The head is clothed in the close and primly plaited hood which enfolds the Egyptian sphinx-heads with that peculiar look of silence which seems the absolute expression of the lonely desert ; but above the brow this cap projects into the head of a bald-eagle, which looks down upon the sphinx’s face, — a face belonging to the noblest type of American womanhood. A clear forehead, the delicate eyebrows bending away from the long, straight nose, with a slight droop at the temples, but not from weariness or care — rather, the expression of a patient steadfastness. However far this sphinx looks back, she is still prepared to gaze into an illimitable future, —
“ Staring right on with calm, eternal eyes.”
She is, however, a wholly new birth, we take it, and her past will date from to-day, — the to-day which has brought the two races, depicted in the African mythic figure and the American face, into such strange and close association. This association is expressed in the inscription on the pedestal : —
AMERICA CONSERVATA AFRICA LIBERATA POPULO MAGNO ASSURGENTE HEROUM SANGUINE FUSO.
Again, on either end of the granite block is sculptured a flower, the one a lotus, the other a white water-lily, which we may Suppose to have drifted to their present places on the two currents of thought which meet in the conception of the Americanized sphinx.