“The Lackawanna Valley,” painted by George Inness in 1856, displays a transition not only in the art world, but also in American history.
George Inness, born in 1825 in Newburgh, New York, was a famous American landscape painter (1). Having studied under masters in the Hudson River School, Inness developed a spiritual expression in his paintings. Inness is known for his unique American style and his realistic work through the Tonalist movement (1).
“The Lackawanna Valley” is changing from Romanticism to Realism. Artistically, there is a happy, ‘rose-tinted’ background but also a harsh, stumped tree-scape in the foreground. The lively background parallels Romantic art, while the deforestation in the foreground is more Realistic (1). In a historical sense, there is a celebration of the transcontinental railway; but there is also the reality of the environmental impact.
My initial reactions to this painting included the use of muted colors (Tonalism) and a lonesome, large tree in the left foreground. This painting emphasizes the tree by mere size. The train smoke and roundhouse I feel are also emphasized by the use of light. The boy’s red sweater also pops. From these observations, I came to realize this painting would be relative to the topic of westward expansion and it’s impacts (3).
Many critics view “The Lackawanna Valley” as a harmonious piece between nature, machine, and progress. This is a more Romantic view because harmony and progress overlook the negative impacts of the industrial revolution (5). This progress is demonstrated not only by the progressing train, but also by the completed roadhouse. Inness was commissioned by the president of the Delaware-Lackawanna Western Railroad to paint this valley scene with the intended roadhouse completed to show viewers what glory it would behold (2). The boy in red is thought to be admiring the beauty of the train. This admiration of machines was very common at the time: as noted in class, the Corliss Steam Engine was viewed as a revolutionary work of art in a museum (4).
When looking at the painting, the railroad splits it into thirds: 1/3 civilization, 1/3 tree stumps, and 1/3 woods and farmland (3). While some think the thirds are a rhythmic flow of progress, I see it as a juxtaposition and it’s result (2). What I mean by this is that I see the mixture between machine and nature resulting in the destruction of the environment and the creatures living in it. This reminds me of a moment in class when we talked of the mass killing of Buffalo in the west to make room for the expanding railway (4).
(image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bison_skull_pile,_ca1870.png)
So instead of this progressive Romantic view some viewers at the time held, I think Inness wanted to display destruction. With “the swath of tree stumps” in the foreground and the roadhouse in the background, it is implied that the boy in red is overlooking and contemplating the impact of western expansion (6). The boy in red is almost in the shadow (or protection) of the tree.. how ironic.
All in all, this painting of Lackawanna Valley displays the United States industrial expansion out west. The country was moving constantly bringing new technology out west, but at the chance you take a second to sit under the shade of a lonesome tree, you can notice all of the negative impacts Westward expansion was causing.
1. Bell, Adrienne Baxter. “George Inness (1825–1894)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. December 2012. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/inne/hd_inne.htm
2. Fedrick, Barbara. “Linking Geography and Art: Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley.” Journal of Geography. Vol 95. Issue 6. 1996.
3. Inness, George. The Lackawanna Valley c. 1856. Oil on canvas. 86 x 127.5 cm
4. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class discussion. 2015
5. Horsley, Carter. “George Inness and Visionary Landscape.” National Academy of Design, New York. 2003. http://www.thecityreview.com/inness.html
6. “The Lackawanna Valley” National Gallery of Art. http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.30776.html