The George Inness who is featured in a small gem of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art isn't the Inness one typically encounters in public collections of American art.

The more familiar Inness is something of a mystic, a painter of fuzzy, dreamy landscapes that are as much imagined as observed.

The protagonist of "George Inness in Italy" projects a different sensibility. Although a native-born American, he draws his inspiration from 17th-century Old Masters and the French Barbizon painters of his own time.

This isn't surprising, because when Inness was born, in Newburgh, N.Y., in 1825, American artists were still taking their aesthetic cues from Europe. They continued to do so well into the 19th century, and even into the early modern period.

Even the Hudson River School, usually considered this country's first important native art movement, was started by an Englishman, Thomas Cole.

Inness, who died in 1894, became one of the most important American painters of his time, the second half of the 19th century. He's interesting and significant because he pursued a style that he, more than any of his contemporaries, came to define, a compositional method called tonalism.

We can characterize Inness by what he wasn't - although primarily a landscapist, he was not a Hudson River follower. There are similarities in some of his Art Museum pictures, but Inness was looking at landscape not to describe or celebrate nature but as a source of emotional fulfillment.

Nor was he an impressionist, the movement that superseded the Hudson River approach. (If you'd like to become better acquainted with the latter genre, the exhibition at the Reading Public Museum called "American Scenery," discussed last week, is the perfect place to do so.)

Inness faulted impressionism for being excessively concerned with visual sensation. Impressionism was bright and cheerful; Inness, a frail man who suffered from epilepsy, was not.

More important, he believed art had a more elevated purpose than evoking sunlight and sparkling color.

As he once observed: "A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion."

In his late career, this notion, nourished by Swedenborgian doctrine, carried Inness well beyond what we see in his Italian paintings into tonalism, a relatively short-lived aesthetic that many other artists, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler and the New Hope painter William Lathrop, also adopted.

Inness' evolutionary journey began in Italy during 1851-52, the first of two extended trips that the artist made to that country; the second lasted longer, from 1870 to '74. (He also worked in France during the mid-1850s, which might have been even more critical to his development.)

"George Inness in Italy" presents 10 major paintings that he made in Europe, in which one can recognize both his role models and the intimations of the mystical tendency that would culminate in tonalism, the style on which his reputation primarily rests today.

The genitive kernel of the show is a landscape called Twilight on the Campagna, which the Art Museum has owned since 1945, and which has recently been cleaned and restored after spending most of that time buried in storage.

This bucolic view of the Roman countryside does, in fact, provoke the kind of emotional sustenance that Inness believed to be art's essential purpose.

The other nine major pictures were lent by other American museums. Some, like Twilight, express a continuation of baroque master Claude Lorrain's emphasis on serene, calculated beauty in landscape composition.

By contrast, a view of Lake Nemi from 1872 (there's also a view of this subject from 1857) is closer to the Hudson River ideal - a hazy sunset in which the atmosphere is palpably heavy, a presence as substantive as the mirror-still lake or the surrounding hills.

Inness' Italian landscapes are, in keeping with the European model, more domesticated and cultivated than the raw naturalness that his Hudson River contemporaries were observing and recording. His are less florid and demonstrative.

They culminate in Pines and Olives at Albano (The Monk) of 1873, which represents Inness at his most Barbizony - typically dark and moody, almost monochromatic. Several umbrella pines are silhouetted against a pale, lemon-olive sky; the foreground is a mass of shadows, relieved mostly by the tiny figure of a monk in a white robe.

In this picture, Inness is moving toward the evocation, through subdued tonal harmonies, that characterizes his later work.

Tonalism is a difficult concept to pin down - I have come to doubt that artists themselves ever used it - but essentially it means working in a relatively narrow tonal range to suggest meditative intimacy, exactly what occurs in Pines and Olives.

Tonalism works best with landscape, or rural scenes in general, which tend to have broader tonal expanses such as land, foliage, water, and sky to work with.

It's the same strategy that pictorialist photographers such as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz (in his early work) used when they were trying to create a photographic equivalent of painting.

Tonalism is a soft-focus aesthetic in which spatial relationships become indeterminate. It enhances the atmospheric areas between objects. After Inness became attracted to the mystical religion of Emanuel Swedenborg, tonalism naturally entered this vocabulary as the perfect tool to express the spiritual dimensions of nature.

A small group of Inness works in the museum's collection, installed adjacent to the 10 Italian scenes, includes Landscape With Yellow Bush, a small oil from 1885 that announces the advent of this final shift in Inness' thinking.

Because Inness is best-known today for his intensely poetic later works, the show of Italian pictures, organized by museum curator Mark D. Mitchell, comes as a revelation. Mitchell has pulled together an effectively focused and satisfying examination of a fascinating artist who often comes across as one-dimensional in most histories.

The show is embedded in another dramatic event, a "recovered-masterpiece" narrative that has rescued from obscurity a major American painting. That alone is reason enough to visit.

Art: Italian Interludes

"George Inness in Italy" continues in Gallery 119 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through May 15. A related exhibition of prints and two paintings hangs in Gallery 120. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $16 general, $14 for visitors 65 and older, and $12 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish first Sunday of the month. Information: 215-763-8100, or www.philamuseum.org.

EndText