'Tales of the Spirit'
by JAMES PANERO
For the study of art there may be nothing more important, and more impressive, than the catalogue raisonné. Literally a “reasoned” catalogue, the catalogue raisonné is a publication by a preeminent scholar or scholars that attempts to identify and describe all work produced by a given artist. Always printed in a small quantity, and with a price that reflects the expense of its production, such a book is rarely marketed to the general public, although it can be a beautiful object of art in itself.
The catalogue raisonné of the American painter George Inness (1825–94), recently published by Rutgers University Press and listed at $400, is no exception. Slipcased, weighing more than 16 pounds, with 1,274 pages divided among two volumes and nearly 150 color plates, it is a monument of scholarship on the iconoclastic painter of the Hudson River School, whose career spanned 50 years, from 1844 to his death. The publication of this catalogue is also a testament to the spell this artist can cast more than a century after his death. Behind the book is the story of the scholar who pursued the project for 15 years and the patron who made it possible.
This part of the story begins in the late 1980s, when New York financier Frank Martucci entered a Madison Avenue gallery and saw his first George Inness painting. He told me the painting encouraged him “to see beyond the canvas. There was a bigger world out there. Inness went beyond painting the everyday occurrences in life and expressed spirituality on canvas. He was an optimist, a non-conformist, a social egalitarian and an avid abolitionist.”
Martucci’s discovery had lasting repercussions for a self-effacing scholar named Michael Quick. In 1985 and ’86, Quick had organized a traveling retrospective of Inness’s works that began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was seen in Cleveland, Minneapolis and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where he was curator of American art) and ended at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Fresh from the success of that show, as Quick related it to me, he ran into Martucci, who “expressed an interest in supporting scholarship and asked me to name a project that I thought was the most important. And I told him that an up-to-date, improved catalogue raisonné that combined all the information of other scholars would be most useful.” Though Martucci admits that, at first, he didn’t know what a catalogue raisonné was, this did not stop him from underwriting Quick’s labors for the time it took to produce the book. In fact, Martucci would make several commitments to Inness. In addition to building a personal collection of eight Inness landscapes, he funded the construction of an Inness wing at the Montclair Art Museum in Inness’s New Jersey hometown. And then there was the catalogue.
Like his fellow American landscape painters Asher B. Durand and John F. Kensett, Inness began his training in an engraver’s shop in New York. He studied the 17th-century landscapes of Claude Lorrain, Mein-dert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael. Multiple visits to Europe brought him in contact with the Barbizon School in France and the pre-Raphaelites in England.
Upon his arrival to the United States, Inness took his first spiritual turn under the advisement of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a patron. As Quick writes in the catalogue, Beecher “advocated a more intimate, emotional relationship toward God, which he indicated could be found through ecstatic experiences in nature.” Inness’s spiritual development continued into the 1860s. Through the largely forgotten American painter William Page, Inness discovered Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century Christian mystic and occult philosopher who also influenced Ralph Waldo Emerson and many other artists and writers of the period. Through Swedenborg and Page, Inness developed a “fresh concept of nature as a place of divine harmony and peace,” writes Quick, “together with a technique that was designed to create paintings full of this same harmony and balance.”
Inness’s vision progressed from strict fidelity to the observable world to mysterious images infused with rich atmosphere, which he built up through glazes of translucent pigment. In his famous early painting of Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley, from 1855, now in the National Gallery of Art, “Inness’s representation of Scranton is accurate, even down to the tree stumps in the middle ground,” writes Quick. For “Autumn Oaks” (c. 1876–77), a well known painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Inness incorporated “a complicated process of painting the colors at nearly full intensity, glazing them back, and then adding intense highlights [so that] the color is both deep and intense, and the modeling is full and atmospheric.” As he reached the end of his career in the 1880s and 1890s, the layers deepened, and Inness produced his most haunting works, for example “Early Autumn, Montclair” (1891), now in the Delaware Art Museum, which Quick calls “one of Inness’s great late paintings.”
Martucci’s patronage allowed Quick to examine, personally, all of these paintings and then some. “It was two week-long trips twice a month for three years,” he recalls. “With just a few exceptions, I saw every painting in the book. That was one of the principles, that I actually examine each work. This was critical to the book’s success.” It also sets this book apart from the 1965 catalogue by LeRoy Ireland, which was based largely on black-and-white photographs of the paintings.
During this rigorous period of examination, Quick gained a new understanding of the artist. “It was a precondition for authenticity and also gave me insight into his work,” he notes. “I was able to arrive at some very new conclusions that could not have been discovered by any other means.”
After funding the indexing of old exhibition catalogues, magazines and microfilm, which accompanies each entry, Martucci underwrote the catalogue’s printing. This was carried out, after a delay of nearly a year, in Hong Kong, once the catalogue’s designers were able to color-correct and personally oversee the print run.
How does Martucci view the 15-year journey? “It was a lot of fun,” he says. “The purpose was quite provocative and certainly important. The outcome has exceeded my expectations, very much so. The amount of research that went into this becomes self-evident when one looks at the book. Every single picture has an extensive provenance with a commentary, a total exhibition history and summaries before each period. To me it’s quite unbelievable.”
“Today, people are interested in contemporary art,” Quick says. “Inness’s art is of a different kind. It’s not showy. It’s more subtle; that may be out of sync with today’s public.” But, he concludes, “reproductions have power.”
At the time of his death, George Inness was one of America’s best-known painters. Just over a century later, his spiritual landscapes contrast with the rather more jaded landscapes of contemporary art. A catalogue raisonné will never alter the fortunes of an artist overnight. But like a vision emerging from one of Inness’s mists, such a catalogue can provide the spark of recognition that makes the rediscovery of a great artist possible.