George Inness (May 1, 1825 – August 3, 1894) belonged to the second generation of the so-called Hudson River or Hudson River Valley School, the first distinctively American school of painting. In his early work, Inness advances the “luminist” tendency of his precursors (Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and others); and like them, he is almost exclusively a landscape painter, interested in the effects of light on mountain, valley, plain, lake, ocean, and sky. In his later work, Inness innovates in the direction of Impressionism. The Hudson River painters were American Romantics, steeped in the nature-philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his followers, but also conversant with the late-medieval tradition of reading nature as the outward sign of the supernatural (think Jakob Boehme), a tendency that culminates in the strange but influential writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Inness occasionally identified himself as a Swedenborgian.
Transcendentalism, whether in literature or painting, is a difficult movement for Traditionalists to assess. In concert with the Romanticism of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it presupposes a critique of scientism and materialism, but, in its proximity to Unitarianism, it would seem to distance itself from actual Christianity. (Is it really transcendent, as its name implies, or is it incipiently modern hence subscendent?) Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, and like Emerson and Thoreau, Inness finds himself mystically absorbed by the contemplation of the landscape. In his Rainbow, begun in 1877 and completed in 1878, he paints a bucolic scene, even a dumbly bovine one, but it is the arc of light, of course, that endows significance on the pictorial milieu.
The Rainbow is not, perhaps, like Ed Emshwiller’s cover for John Brunner’s Atlantic Abomination, an image for our time. It is more like an image totally at odds with our time. I invite commentary on it, in hopes of creating a thread parallel to that which ensued on my posting of Emshwiller’s paperback cover. What is Inness telling modern people, of which they remain ignorant but which they desperately need to know despite themselves? What are the multiple, positive meanings instinct in the details of the scene? Why is the milch cow staring directly at us?
(Investigators may access a large, high-density online image of The Rainbow here.)