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Sunday, February 26, 2012

George Inness

George Inness, 1890
As artist, we revel in freedom. It's considered the life's blood of art. Unfettered creativity is such a heady experience we often talk about it in awe approaching some kind of mystical, spiritual, even religious occurrence. As artists, we point with elation at some of the works painters have created from within themselves with little or no outside influence. Artists of independent means with no need for patronage, perhaps not even a desire for artistic acceptance, such a Paul Cezanne, have produced works which have changed the course of art in the western world. But I'm here to tell you they are the exception, rather than the rule. Ninety percent of all art is produced under conditions involving some outside restrictions imposed upon the artist, either in terms of his or her need to earn a living from their art, or by a client commissioning a work of art, or by social, religious, or governmental restrictions upon that which they may produce. And I suggest that in very many cases, the best of all the art ever produced came about not in spite of these restrictions but because of them. 

The Lackawanna Valley, 1855, George Inness
In 1855, the president of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company commissioned the Philadelphia artist, George Inness to do a painting of the fledgling company's roundhouse, railways, and rolling stock. Inness needed the money but as primarily a landscape and figurative painter, he was less than delighted at the prospect of painting the hardware and real estate of an organization he considered responsible for raping the natural rural beauty of the countryside he loved so much. He painted a lush landscape with spreading hills a bucolic farmer, and a single locomotive chugging its way through the lovely Pennsylvania farmlands. The painting (now apparently lost), was rejected. Inness was forced back to the drawing board and obliged to compromise. His second effort, The Lackawanna Valley, 1855 (above), depicts much of the same beauty but with the town of Scranton in the misty middle ground, the roundhouse situated on the edge of town, with a graceful curve of track and the white steam-spewing locomotive (notice, no dirty black smoke) making its way across the tranquil landscape. The result is not only a far more interesting painting, but one that says something about the age in which it was created and the forces coming to bear on its creator. And today, in an age of urban sprawl and endless concrete ribbons, the train is seen as a quaint, benign reminder of days gone by, not as some sort of monstrous iron rapist.

Inness also painted extensively in Italy as seen
in this distant view of St. Peter's Rome, 1856.
Would Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling have been as impressive painted on canvas? Would Wright's Fallingwater have been as powerful built on a Mississippi flood plain? Would the Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty have as much meaning in the middle of a Kansas cornfield? Would the Gettysburg Address be memorized today by school children if Lincoln has droned on for an hour? Restrictions impose discipline upon an artist, regardless of the medium. They demand that the artist work at his or her concept. And in effect, they cause the artist to rise above the subject at hand to strive for greatness, not just the first workable depiction. Even in the hands of a great artist, unlimited creativity often results in mundane art. But, by the same token, in the hands of a mundane artist, restrictions can choke off creativity, resulting in no art. As an art educator, I often saw this. A student's first ten solutions were usually garbage. They werer the obvious paths. It's only after these have been gently rejected with the admonishment, "You can do better," that genius is uncovered. "Make me some art," is likely to drown even a good artist in possibilities not to mention inviting mediocrity. "Paint in oils, that which you fear most, on this 18"x24" canvas board using only white, two primary colors, and their corresponding secondary," builds a sheltering enclosure with known limits in which the artist feels secure to ponder the possibilities.

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