George Inness: The Rainbow

Inness George (825 – 1894) Rainbow (1877 - 78)

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.)

12 thoughts on “George Inness: The Rainbow

  1. Pingback: George Inness: The Rainbow | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. Pingback: George Inness: The Rainbow | Reaction Times

    • The milch cow certainly fixes the viewer with her gaze, which is undeniably a communicative gaze. Communication is the key word. For the modern mentality, nature, including animal nature, is a material object, but it is never a subject. The modern mentality observes nature, measures her, and exploits her, but it never communicates with her. Inness can still see nature as creation – the consequence of an intentional act. Therefore, for Inness, the intentionality of the committed viewer of nature is matched by nature’s own intentionality towards him, which is a mediated version of God’s intentionality.

      It is appropriate to invoke the Deluge because every storm and every sign of impending tempest echoes the Deluge and thus points a finger at the sinful complacency of men.

  3. The painting arrests the viewer and demands affirmation that the beautiful is a category of reality; if the viewer can’t see that, there is something wrong with him and probably with his education.

    The painting communicates to us today that worthwhile art is concerned with something far other than being all so clever and ironic. We may embrace the latter and hollow out our inner world. Inness’s painting is an invitation to repent, to have a change of mind and heart by turning to the beautiful, good, and true once again.

    Dale Nelson

    • The eponymous rainbow is certainly a symbol of affirmation, linking the bucolic scene – which includes a farmhouse partially hidden by trees, and, in the distance, a town – to the sky and therefore to the heavens. For Inness, the sky is always the portal to a heavenly or transcendent realm. Like the other Hudson River painters, Inness took a profound interest in the ways in which a properly ordered cultural dimension fits itself to its natural environment. Viewers know that they are in the presence of culture when they confront the painting’s scene because the presence of the herd speaks of animal husbandry, and of dairy activities, and points also to agriculture. Notice also the unobtrusive fence, which remains, despite being unobtrusive, a fence. Inness’ vision of the world never repudiates the idea of property. The property depicted in the painting (the farm) is not, however, abstract, something for which there is a cash equivalency. This property is under proper stewardship: It is productive and self-replenishing, held by its owner under the sign of perpetuity and cherished by him precisely because it is good, true, and beautiful.

  4. I would strike the word ‘dumbly’ from ‘dumbly bucolic’. It detracts from your point, and the painting doesn’t deserve it.

    Bucolic? Yes. But those cows aren’t dumb. Instead, they’re where they belong. They are, in themselves, a reflection of the highest heights of the supernatural, shining through the animal. The entire picture fits together, not of disparate parts, nor even parts over against each other, but each supporting the rest, like an arch.

    There is no tension; there is only pointing. Each element, each level, points the same way, to the full extent of its being: upward.

    • By “dumbly bucolic” I meant to characterize a probable first impression of the canvas by a typical modern person. I judge that the remainder of my preliminary analysis makes that clear. To underscore my position, however – I agree with you: There is nothing dumb in the painted scene; Inness’ Nature speaks clearly and articulately.

      I believe that I invoked the term intention, not tension, although the two are related. Intention is a property of consciousness considered, not as a passive, but as an active principle, present not only in the person who contemplates the scene, but in every element of the scene, which contemplates the contemplator back!

      • You did invoke intention rather than tension, but only in the comments, which I’ve now read more closely. The original post gave the impression – probably due to my poor reading comprehension – of a claim about the overall intentionality existing, but there nevertheless being some distention or, more charitably, tension between the lower things, such as cows, and the higher things in the picture.

        Aside, it’s nice to have this discussion with someone who knows his Augustine.

  5. Rhetocrates: Yes, Augustine, but also Schelling, Coleridge, and Husserl. As God is Creator, all intentionality derives ultimately from God. The milch cow cannot articulate that intentionality as completely as a human being can, but it is the same intentionality nevertheless. That is why Inness confronts his viewers with the milch cow’s gaze, precisely to indicate that Nature gazes back at us when we gaze at Nature. There is, by the way, tension in Inness’ scene: In the electrical storm behind the rainbow, but that too is a physical symbol of something metaphysical, the highest degree of all high tension. Why did Moses have to conceal himself in a rocky cleft to half-see God? Had Moses viewed God directly, the “high tension” of the vision would have annihilated him. We can only ever view the Highest Principle indirectly, by many mediations. This too belongs to Inness’ meaning.

    My purpose in offering these images for interpretation has been to invite interpretation. Preliminarily, I try to withhold my own interpretation. That is perhaps what led you to your initial conclusion. Yours is a valuable contribution to the thread.

    • If you have not, read the Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis. (I will be flabbergasted, considering your avowed interests, if this has not already crossed your desk.)

      The reason I bring it up is that this picture, and your analysis of it, (but more primally just the picture itself) reminds me of what Lewis is attempting to capture in words at the end of Perelandra.

      Of course, Inness is not God, and so therefore we cannot see that the objects of the painting exist wholly for themselves as well as in their cosmic relations.

      You can see this, technically, in his use of recursive ratio, roughly speaking. Of course I haven’t actually taken a ruler to the painting, but take another close look. You can divide it into the left and the right half. The cow staring directly out of the painting is just to the right of the distinction. These halves fit together and are nevertheless halves.

      Then, again, you can divide the right half into two halves: the foreground half, with the two main cows, and the background half with the herd. (The sky also roughly follows this distinction.) Note that the other standing cow is looking obliquely back at the herd, tying the foreground and background together in a unity of meaning and belonging. Finally, taking the right half again you can divide it once again, separating off the small cow in the background along with the birds and non-rainbow portion of the sky. This recursion of the ratio of the piece – not strictly followed, and thereby more powerful because more organic – adds to its pointing nature. It recapitulates Plato’s ‘divided line’ and draws us inexorably toward the painter’s depiction of the veiled divinity in nature, because as the subdivision grows, so too does the mere portion taken up by sky, but also the more interesting and varied the sky becomes.

      And yet, note that mere animal nature is never in this scheme completely sublimated into the divine in a neo-Hegelian fashion; in this last subdivision also reside the birds. They are higher forms than the cows, for they are, in a real sense, part of the heavens. They belong there. They were made for it and fitted for their purpose. At the same time, they still share the same animal nature with the cows, despite their soaring, showing exactly that the animal nature is exalted in and exalts the Divine.

      The cow, staring at us, by virtue of both her knowing look and her position in the frame, symbolizes as well the moment of understanding – the moment where we begin to climb the divided line from mere eidolons through the ratios of dianoia into pure eikons. She is us, or she draws us, into the movement of the painting.

      • Magnificent! Your words are a high point of The Orthosphere this year.

        Regarding Lewis’ Space trilogy: A couple of years ago Richard Cocks and I supervised a master’s thesis that applied precepts from Rene Girard to Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Lewis’ Hideous Strength. It was obvious that the two other examiners at the oral defense were unfamiliar with any of those books, never having read them.


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