Featuring the largest collection of paintings of one of America’s foremost landscape artists, this small church should be much better known for the treasures it has.
George Inness Jr. (1854-1926) was the son of George Inness Sr. (1825-1894) and Elizabeth Abigail Hart (1833-1903). Born in Paris, France while his parents were there to allow his father to study painting, he grew up in the US. His father was also a highly regarded landscape painter and the younger Inness first studied with him.
In his teens he studied art in France and became an officer of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts), an esteemed academic society. He’s considered part of the Barbizon School, an informal community of European and American artists who tended toward realism in their works. They favored natural scenes and depictions of average people rather than the wealthy. The movement towards Impressionism was also rejected by the school.
Inness Jr. would do the bulk of his work in the US – Boston, New York and New Jersey. In 1877, his father built a house and studio in Tarpon Springs. Inness Jr. would follow him there for a short while and the two of them would work on landscapes they saw in the wilderness around Tarpon Springs. Inness Jr. wouldn’t formally move to Tarpon Springs until 1902, when he established a winter home and studio. He didn’t become particularly successful until middle-age, partly spurred on by a purchase by his father-in-law Roswell Smith of one of his large paintings. Smith was a wealthy publisher.
Tarpon Springs is where the younger Inness created the majority of his paintings, many depicting Florida’s natural beauty – he was one of the earliest artists with a national reputation to highlight the landscape of Florida. His 1879 marriage to the heiress Julia Goodrich Smith freed him from having to do trade work or commissions to pay his expenses and for the next four decades he would work on what he wished as well as become a noted philanthropist.
After his father’s death he once again returned to Paris and enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts), one of the most influential art schools in the world. He thrived at the school and two of his academic works would go on to be displayed in the Musée du Louvre (The Louvre Museum) in Paris for several decades. Those paintings are now on display in the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs. It was at this time that Inness became an officer of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, a rare honor for an American.
In his Florida landscapes he presents the beauty of unspoiled Florida woodlands, glades and forests, adding a sense of spirituality to them – sometimes directly, or indirectly, referencing Christian themes. The body of his Florida work is subtle, beautiful and rightly famous for his shades of green. In 1899, he was elected to the US National Academy of Design whose membership is limited to 450 American artists and architects, and who are elected by their peers on the basis of recognized excellence.
Inness’ association with the Tarpon Springs church, known at the time as a Universalist Church, is an interesting one. The congregation began in 1885 with 14 initial members. Anson P. K. Safford (1830-1891), former governor of the Arizona Territory (1869-1877) donated land for the new church. He had retired to Tarpon Springs and was a Universalist. Two years after the church was formed, Tarpon Springs was incorporated – the first community in Pinellas County to do so. This was several years before Greek immigrants began settling in the area to pursue sponge diving.
The Universalist Church grew along with the town. As of 2020, the church’s website states that in 1918 the area was hit by a hurricane which destroyed several of the church’s windows, however the 1918 Atlantic Hurricane Season didn’t have a hurricane come near the state. There was a tropical depression that developed in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and moved east across Florida between June 20-23. It’s possible that was the storm that destroyed several of the church’s windows. Otherwise, the only significant storms to hit Tarpon Springs were a tropical storm in 1916 and a category one hurricane in 1920. The most important storm to hit the area was the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane which made landfall at Tarpon Springs (highest sustained winds of 140 mph/225 kmh and 8 deaths in the area).
The damage to the church happened near the end of World War I and glass was nearly impossible to get. Inness stepped up to help the congregation by donating several paintings to brighten the walls that were the now boarded up windows. Thus began the church’s remarkable Inness Jr. collection. As of 2020, the church possesses 11 paintings by Inness Jr.
– The collection includes –
Two large triptychs (a painting with three panels): Promise – Realization – Fulfillment (1918) and The Twenty Third Psalm (1922).
The last painting Inness had completed shortly before his death: The Lord is in His Holy Temple (1926).
A panorama of the Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs: Sunset on the Bayou (1925).
Two paintings that were given to the church by his wife after his death: The Centurion (1897) and The Last Shadow of the Cross (1898) – Julia had them removed from the Musée du Louvre to send them to Tarpon Springs.
A painting calling for world peace: The Only Hope (1924) – Possibly Inness’ most celebrated work, the painting went on a tour of the United States before returning to Tarpon Springs and was reproduced in magazines. At the time, US President Calvin Coolidge said it should stay on permanent display in the US Capitol. The church became locally famous for the paintings and vacationers in the 1920s began to visit the church to see its art collection.
George and Julia Inness both supported the arts and were philanthropists. Through their work, and that of his father before him, early Tarpon Springs became known as an artists colony, as it was popular with painters, writers and other creative people. Julia also founded the Tarpon Springs Public Library.
In 2019, George Inness Jr. was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame In 2000, the State of Florida chose to designate Inness a Great Floridian in recognition of his lifetime of distinguished artistic and philanthropic contributions to the state.
The Inness paintings are on display in the church’s sanctuary and are available for viewing on Sundays normally. During the week, they are available for viewing only by appointment. The collection is a remarkable sight. While 11 paintings may not seem a significant size, the works are large and filled with details that can take time to fully appreciate. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs and it’s George Inness Jr. collection is one of the hidden gems of Florida tourism.