WILLIAMSTOWN -- For Laurel Garber, the ability to help curate a show on the largest art gift ever made to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute was both a treat and an honor.
Judging by the robust summer attendance already recorded at the exhibition "George Inness: Gifts from Frank and Katherine Martucci," Garber and the rest of the Clark staff should prepare for an end-of-show surge, as the important presentation will wrap up on Sept. 8.
"As a curatorial assistant, you often spend most of your time in the archives doing a lot of necessary logistical work," Garber said during a gallery tour. "It was an absolute thrill to contribute directly to this show's organization, both because of the tremendous generosity of the Martucci's gift and what it means to the Clark, and really, because Inness was so influential to American art."
Clark director Michael Conforti said that the 10 paintings - eight in the Martucci donation and two from the museum's permanent collection - speak to the Clark's ability to provide world-class exhibitions far from major metropolitan areas.
"This exhibition provides an opportunity to consider the works of one of the great American painters of the late 19th century in a very special context," Conforti said.
In the 1880s, George Inness (1825-1894), a member of the Hudson River School movement, developed his signature style of painting: softly modeled, ethereal landscapes which conveyed a mood or atmosphere. Gerber said many of them were inspired by the countryside near the artist's home in Montclair, N.J.
"These landscapes, completed in the latter part of his career, are pastoral and soft and some of the subject matter often seems ambiguous," Garber said. "But they are very much grounded in Inness' real surroundings at that time of his life."
Still, Garber continued, Inness looked past the physical to interpret nature's spirituality. She said the writings of 18th-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg were a great influence.
"Scholars have documented Inness' known connection to Swedenborgism," Garber said. "As a result, the spiritual, not just the material, were of great importance in these later works."
Garber pointed to several examples. In "New Jersey Landscape," she said Innes softened the image's contours with rapid brush strokes, areas of pigment wiped with a rag, and wet paint scoring with the reverse brush end. These techniques drew out a sense of nature's metaphysical features.
She said that in "Home at Montclair," Inness used thinly applied paint to capture the equilibrium between perception and nature.
"The forms in the paintings all seem to fuse together in a larger whole," Garber said. "You need to spend time with these paintings. If you allow it, Inness' art will absorb you."
Also among the works included in the exhibition are "Sunrise in the Woods," "The Road to the Village," "Milton," and "Green Landscape." During his last years, Inness returned to the motif of a central elm tree and distant white house several times, including for the compositional study "The Elm Tree."
Clark Senior curator Richard Rand said the exhibition as a concept came together last fall, in light of plans for the Clark's major Winslow Homer show this summer.
Rand said while celebrating the Martucci gift, "Inness" was also a prime opportunity to express the depth of understanding of the painter's later landscapes, and how significant his development was to the history of American art.
"Of course, this is quite an opportunity to display a marvelous gift from the Martuccis, especially given our concurrent Winslow Homer exhibition," Rand said. "But what this show also allows us to address is the enhanced understanding of how important an artist George Inness was. He focused his later years on the question of the physical versus the spiritual. The landscapes he produced were a beautiful answer."
"George Inness: Gifts from Frank and Katherine Martucci," runs through Sept. 8 at the Clark Art Institute. Info: 413-458-2303 or visit clarkart.edu
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @TellyHalkias