A restless, habitual traveler his entire life, Inness made many extended painting trips to locations in the southern United States in the last decade of his career. He wintered regularly in Florida from 1887 until 1894, the year of his death. Inness painted many of his greatest late paintings on these trips, among them Moonlight, Tarpon Springs. The locations he chose were somewhat off the beaten path and not popular vacation spots. Tarpon Springs was a sleepy town on the Florida Gulf Coast that had experienced an influx of Greek sponge fishermen, but few of the tourists who vacationed in Florida visited that small coastal town. His trips to Tarpon Springs were part of Inness’s pattern of wintering in rural locations away from the stress of the city and involved setting up a relatively permanent household and studio.
In Moonlight, Tarpon Springs and a number of related paintings, Inness avoided the sights most frequently sought out by artists visiting Florida—alligators, palm trees, and lush flowers. Instead, he focused on the subtler flavor and atmosphere of the northern Gulf Coast, which is known for its tall pine trees, causeways, and short, flat vistas. Moonlight, Tarpon Springs reverberates with spiritual intensity. In the painting, the moon and glow of a distant bonfire pick out details in an otherwise dark and shadowy landscape that Duncan Phillips poetically described as having "the warm sweet gloom of our fragrant pine groves of the south." A lone woman in a white kerchief, who serves as both a compositional anchor and poetic accent, enhances the mystery and magic of the night. The figure and atmospheric effects are also reminiscent of the work of the French Barbizon school, an early influence for Inness. As Phillips observed, Inness was "inspired by [his] themes,…possessed and acted upon by his subjects." And, in his late works, painted during the travels of his last years, he reached new heights of expressive interpretation of nature through the sensitive manipulation of color, composition, and paint.