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George Inness

American, 1825–1894

The Coming Storm, 1878

Oil on canvas
26 x 39 inches (66 x 99.1 cm)
Albert H. Tracy Fund, 1900

The American idea of nature in the nineteenth century was pantheistic and spiritual. Nature was the work of God and was believed to have the power to uplift, both morally and spiritually, anyone who spent time in its contemplation. George Inness, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not paint vast expanses of the wilderness. He chose instead to represent settled and cultivated landscapes, such as this one believed to be in New Hampshire.

In middle age, Inness was drawn to the ideas of Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who taught that God was immanent in every living thing and that the visual world contained an inner essence that was revealed subconsciously to those who were attuned to it. Inness believed that it was the artist’s role to capture on canvas these spiritual qualities of nature in order to help other people see them as well.

The Coming Storm, a favorite theme in his work, reflects this philosophy, along with Inness’s belief that the relationship between man and nature was one of equals who lived in harmony, with neither being dominated by the other. For example, although a seemingly violent storm approaches, the farmer continues to cultivate his field unconcerned while his cattle graze peacefully. The farms are nestled safely and snugly in the landscape, and the smoke from the chimney of the one on the left mingles with the clouds, whose darkness contrasts dramatically with the unusual light effects caused by the storm. The continuity and renewal of life is reflected in the farmland itself and also by the juxtaposition of a stump and a newly growing sapling in the lower right corner.

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