Tucked behind the magisterial Winslow Homer gallery at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sits a small quiet room of landscape paintings. One could easily walk right through it— en route to the more dazzling pleasures of the Impressionist collection in the next gallery — without focusing on its contents. But it’s worth stopping and looking. And looking again. Here hangs the work of the American painter George Inness, one of the most influential artists of the 19th century who became a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. Though I was raised a Swedenborgian, I didn’t discover Inness until well into adulthood — and at first was unaware of the strong affinity that drew me to him.
This collection of paintings seems lit from within, many set at dawn or twilight, and almost all of simple, pastoral scenes. But each somehow conveys a sense of mystery and anticipation. Perhaps it’s because, as scholars point out, Inness believed deeply in Swedenborg’s teaching that God is everywhere present in nature. For me, though, it’s more that Inness had a profound ability to see what’s right there — a stand of trees, a field, a young boy herding cattle along a creek — and at the same time convey what is beyond the naked eye: the thing in us that recognizes beauty.
Here’s a poem along these lines by the contemporary American poet Carl Dennis.
by Carl Dennis
This painting of a barn and barnyard near sundown
May be enough to suggest we don’t have to turn
From the visible world to the invisible
In order to grasp the truth of things.
We don’t always have to distrust appearances.
Not if we’re patient. Not if we’re willing
To wait for the sun to reach the angle
When whatever it touches, however retiring,
Feels invited to step forward
Into a moment that might seem to us
Familiar if we gave ourselves more often
To the task of witnessing. Now to witness
A barn and barnyard on a day of rest
When the usual veil of dust and smoke
Is lifted a moment and things appear
To resemble closely what in fact they are.