George Inness is something of an enigma in the history of American art. His contemporaries characterized him—unlike any other nineteenth-century American painter—as “both a poet and a philosopher…who spoke through the painter’s medium.” In addition to pursuing philosophical and spiritual ends in his painting, Inness managed to remain relevant in exhibitions and the art market over the middle and late decades of the nineteenth century by shifting his style of painting as tastes changed.
While Inness began his career in the mid-nineteenth century, creating landscapes alongside artists of the Hudson River School, he never fully embraced their grand style. Instead he evolved into painting intimate, deeply felt compositions. In the late 1870s, Inness became interested in trends in painting taking hold among young artists in New York, coming from European capitals. Pushed to experiment with technique and composition, he produced some of his most desirable canvases in the last 10 years of his life. This late period in his career began with the canvases he produced during a trip to Goochland Courthouse, Virginia, from April to May of 1884. The Museum’s Moonlight in Virginia, hanging in the American galleries, is considered his most complete and mature of the paintings he made on that trip.
Inness likely decided to paint Goochland because he could easily find local models in distinct costumes in this inexpensive, remote location. All of the paintings he produced on the trip share the tone of Moonlight in Virginia—they are wintery and forlorn. Employing a dark, muddy palette, his paintings chill the viewer with their leafless landscapes and desolation. Moonlight in Virginia offers only the slightest relief from this pervasive feeling, through the brilliantly colored fire stoked by an African American woman as it warms a pot at the lower right of the canvas.
Created on his first trip to the South, Inness’s painting can be read as a commentary on the realities of life in the South in the 1880s. During the Civil War, Inness was an ardent abolitionist who was supported by like-minded patrons. It is possible that he made his way to Virginia to capture the lingering effects of the war for African Americans. Or he may have been struck with what he saw upon arriving in Goochland, and he invested himself in painting the realities of the post-Reconstruction era. This led him to create a painting that stands in contrast to the optimistic Peace and Plenty (1865; Metropolitan Museum of Art), which he painted the year the Civil War concluded. The painting’s subject would have also stirred recollections of the Civil War for late nineteenth-century audiences. Its southern connections likely appealed to its first owner, prolific Gilded Age art collector George I. Seney. Seney claimed to have descended from two Maryland families, and he had found financial success organizing southern railroads.