Friday, April 2, 2010

The Element of Surprise

One of the best reasons to get out of bed in the morning is to find out what's going to happen during the rest of your day. I'm happy to report that I'm up and downing coffee right now to prepare for whatever the day has to offer.

Life is rich because it surprises us. We strain to see what's coming up at us just around the bend up ahead. And always reality presents herself to us little differently than we'd imagined she would. Artists earn their keep when they take this spirit of the unexpected to heart.

Above is one of my favorite paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It's by George Inness, the wonderful late 19th century American painter who hung out all over New England and then, of all places, New Jersey. Still wherever he worked, he found something unexpected to tell us.

This oil would be a typical forest interior except he does something so unusual with it. One would expect to be invited to tip toe deeper and deeper into the forest along some kind of pathway provided by the artist. Instead he turns the forest into a surprisingly shallow space, really just a darkened backdrop for his amazing, glowing foreground tree trunk. It seems the whole spirit of the landscape is summed up in just this one tree. It looks like it has lived there for a thousand years. When I grow very old and delusional I suspect I'll be found in the Corcoran standing in front of this painting by Inness carrying on extended conversations with this same tree. It's got depth.

But then just when you think you've got this Inness fellow figured out, here he comes with a completely different kind of painting.

Here he changes the light completely so your gaze immediately leaps right over all the trees in the foreground and clambers up the mountain to look at the white cloud in back of the ridge line. All the tones and colors in the bottom two thirds of the painting are pushed together into a warm colored middle tone. The juicy contrasts are segregated up to the very top of the picture.

When you're first presented with a painting you don't know where to look. If the painter is any good, she or he will tell you where. And if the artist is really good, and Inness is right up there, they'll take your eye somewhere it was least expecting to go. And leave you glad you took the trip.


  1. Thanks so much Phil, your interpretations are engaging and insightful. I'd love to have you as a tour guide. I hope I can learn from your example. -Lisa P.

  2. Thanks Lisa.

    Probably there is nothing so deeply entertaining as a really well done painting. I'm always amazed I can look for years at a good piece and keep finding new things in it. My hope is some of that spirit can rub off on all of us.