George Inness distinguished himself among the Hudson River School painters by pursuing a more modern aesthetic of landscape painting. Unlike his contemporaries, who believed in creating realistic canvases of nature's vastness, Inness felt that "paintings were not necessarily pictures, and it was the artist's function, even his obligation, by an aesthetic and expressive reorganization, to interpret nature and not merely depict it." (as quoted in N. Cikovsky, Jr. and M. Quick, George Inness, Los Angeles, California, 1985, p. 19) Inness' New York based works from the 1860s are widely admired today because they are closest to the familiar manner of Hudson River School painting in those years. Yet these works also begin to show the artist's painting philosophy of incorporating atmospheric climate and expression which brings deeper spiritual meaning into his compositions. Inness went on to produce a body of work marked by a more subjective and ultimately more modern aesthetic than that of his contemporaries. With its dramatic composition and high degree of finish, Sunset on the River is an extraordinary masterwork from this important transitional phase in the artist's career.
Painted in 1867 near the town of Leeds, New York, Sunset on the River presents an expansive view of cattle grazing in a broad pasture which slopes toward a river, partially visible on the left. On the right a stone wall borders a road, along which a covered wagon moves toward a mill with a smoking chimney near the water. From a slightly elevated vantage point, the viewer looks across the expanse to another light-struck pasture in the middle ground extending to wooded foothills, which give rise to a large mountain in the distance. Storm clouds fill the sky, dappling the land with dark streaks intermingled with bursts of light which pierce the foliage and rake across the landscape.
Inness' use of light and atmosphere in Sunset on the River evokes mood and meaning. Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., writes: "In all of the paintings of the 1860's, nature is not merely depicted straightforwardly, but is made articulate: moods of calm are emphatically peaceful, rainbows are clearly portentous, storms are dramatic and threatening, sunsets are gloriously radiant, and bleakness is unmistakably harsh and cold. In 1865, a writer remarked that Inness 'signally [possessed the power of] seizing upon the critical moment in some marked phase of nature.' The result is that one is made aware of the spiritual significance of nature through the way in which its visible forms and effects reflect some higher power." (George Inness, London, 1971, p. 38) The painting's dramatically changing sky, along with the tranquil setting of workers setting off to the mill, seems to express a sense of hope and prosperity in the wake of the Civil War. Very likely, Inness' contemporaries saw in this painting a theme that would pervade American art after the war--the return to peace, industry, and prosperity. The movement and energy of the present work's lush brushwork, paint texture and strong color choices underscore the emotional sense of calm after a storm.
Michael Quick considers Sunset on the River a stunning success of Inness' style of the 1860s. He writes: "This handsome, fully developed painting, with its dramatic lighting and clouds, is one of the most impressive of 1867, looking ahead to the more emotional interpretation of nature seen in Inness's work at the end of the decade. The view is based upon a sketch he used again in Approaching Storm, 1869. In this case, both the foreground and the distance are deeper, and the season is full summer, rather than fall. An unusual element is the mill with its smoking chimney, near what appears to be a building in ruins. Inness drew attention to the mill by both silhouetting it against the lighted field beyond and by making it the object of the road's long diagonal. Brick textile mills were numerous in the Leeds area, but this factory seems out of place in the otherwise entirely pastoral landscape. The textured foreground and the blacklighting of the trees are also unusual for works of 1867, no doubt reflecting the extra effort to add interest to this painting." (George Inness: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. one, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2007, p. 278) His inclusion of the factory and its workers appears here to add an element of the contemporary to his idealized landscape. Where other artists of the 1850s and 1860s might choose to render more purely pastoral views, Inness embraced the new.
All of the artistic devices evident in Sunset on the River convey emotional power. The painting's dramatic recession, extreme contrasts and strong color scheme induce the spiritual response that Inness began to suggest in the 1860s, and continued to evoke in his paintings throughout his career.