I came upon an old man staring so fixedly at this Inness painting that I had to stop and stare along with him. I’d spent time in front of this painting, mesmerized, but couldn’t help but wonder if there was something I’d missed.
“He saw celestial beings, you know,” the old man said, turning to me.
He had a trimmed white beard and neatly cut hair, as if he had just come from the barber, and wore a faded red shirt buttoned up to his collar. He leaned backwards as he squinted at the painting.
“Who saw beings?” I replied. “George Inness?”
“No, Swedenborg,” he said with irritation. “Maybe Inness did too, though I doubt it, judging from this painting.”
The 18th-century Swedish scientist, theologian, and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg had a profound influence on many writers and thinkers, including Blake, Yeats, Emerson, Thoreau and even Helen Keller. Inness came under his influence late in life when he joined a utopian community in New Jersey, and his art moved from his early Barbizon-influenced realism to a more personal style.
“Swedenborg not only saw angels,” he continued, “he talked to them. He said their faces are clear and radiant. But I see nothing clear and radiant in this painting. All I see is dissolution.”
He peered through his thick glasses into Inness’s version of dusk.
“Why do you need the surface to dissolve?” he said. “Is that because we like to pretend that we can see below the surface? I’ve never had a vision but I always imagined it would be something super-real, with even harder edges than usual. I don’t know about you, but I want something I can hold onto. Maybe it’s because I’m so old.”
I told him about a Catholic nun who described for me a vision she’d had of St. Sebastian. She was staring at a meadow on a hot summer day and suddenly the flowers in a field became the tail feathers of the arrows and the earth became the pierced body of St. Sebastian. It was so intense that the colors hurt her eyes, but there was nothing misty or tentative about it.
“Maybe the world is more solid to visionaries, he continued. “All I can say is that I look forward to the day when our images of angels revert to creatures without wings, like elephants or tortoises.”
The mention of the word tortoise brought back a childhood memory of riding Galapagos tortoises at Branch Brook Park in New Jersey. I shared this recollection with him, and he stared off for a moment, as if savoring the same memory.
“Now,” he said, ‘wouldn’t that be a helluva way to ride into paradise?”
—Paul J., Assistant Director of Communications
Image: George Inness. The Home of the Heron, 1893. Edward B. Butler Collection.