Tonalism, a distinctive style of low-toned atmospheric landscape painting, developed a sizable following among American artists in the 1880s. This new generation of tonalist artists, most born after 1845, and many foreign trained in Paris and Munich, broke with the prevailing school of Hudson River artists and their large detailed panoramic views of the American scenes. Many streams of influences fed into the growing taste for a more intimate, poetic, and expressive style of landscape art, relying on soft-edged broadly painted tonalities to communicate emotion. If European methodologies were important, so too were the visionary canvases of native talents like Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and Ralph Blakelock (1947-1919), who developed idiosyncratic styles and romantic subject matter (soon to be widely imitated) without recourse to foreign training. Initially influenced by French Barbizon painting by way of American exponents George Inness (1825-1894), William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), and John La Farge (1835-1910), American Tonalist painters tended to use a neutral palette of predominantly cool colors: green, blue, mauve, violet, and a delicate range of intervening grays, carefully modulated to produce a dominant tone. Preferred subjects were scenes of dawn or dusk, rising mist and moonlight in which the enveloping atmosphere is both palpable and evocative of poetic and meditative states. Artists like John Twachtman (1853-1902) and Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916) employed techniques derived from European landscape art, especially artists of the Hague School (the most prominent being Josef Israels and Anton Mauve), with their emphasis on domesticated landscapes bathed in silvery light. From French sources, especially Jules Bastien-LePage, American expatriates such as Birge Harrison (1854-1929), his brother the marine painter Alexander Harrison (1853-1930), and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) developed a love for natural atmospheric effects combined with strong draftsmanship, and the use of high horizons to bring dramatic focus to foreground features. From English sources in the Aesthetic movement, especially James Whistler (1834-1903), an entire generation of American painters, learned formal compositional techniques and decorative strategies based upon a generalized hue (achieved by using a neutral ground on the canvas), and a fundamental belief that painting should express sentimentyet not be sentimental, didactic, or emphasize narrative.
The technique of glazing, the layering of thin layers of pigment suspended in oil or varnish, came to play an important part in the Tonalist repertoire of effects. Light penetrating these thin washes of color to an undercoat of more solid color was reflected back to the surface, producing a jewel-like quality of scintillating, bewitching hues. The smoky quality or sfumato, also achieved by such methods, was considered part of the Tonalist tradition of craftsmanship going back to sources in the Venetian Renaissance. Thus a certain vibrancy of contour and blurring of forms came to characterize many Tonalist landscapes. Vibration of color, achieved by using warm undertones and cool overtones, was widely used and taught by tonalists such as Birge Harrison to a generation of painters at his Art Students League classes in Woodstock, New York, where he was an instructor beginning in 1897. In his widely influential book on landscape painting, Harrison stressed the heritage of English artists John Constable and John Crome, especially their use of refraction, or the play of adjoining color massesthe “lost-edge” technique, which resulted in a general diffusion of tone and a luxurious, atmospheric quality. Natural forms are dramatized, their edges blurred, patterns and decorative elements emphasized, enhancing the surface quality of the canvas. A finely composed Tonalist painting reads compellingly and immediately when viewed at a distance: all parts contribute to the whole. Harrison advised his students to strive for the “big visionthe power to see and to render the whole of a given scene, rather than to paint a still-life picture of its component parts; the power to give the essential and to suppress the unessential, the power to paint the atmosphere that surrounds the objects rather than the objects themselves; the power, in one word, to give the mood of a motive rather than the scientific statement of the trees and rocks and fields and mountains that make up the elements.”
In terms of Tonalist subject matter and vision, the landscapes of the pathbreaking indigenous artists Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919) and Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1919) were crucial in the development of a distinctly romantic, if not a spiritual or quasi-religious element. Mystery, dream, memory, and imagination are often espoused in their haunting, broadly painted canvases of dusk and moonlight. In this regard, the works of the transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and especially Henry David Thoreau were very influential, authors familiar to many tonalist painters. George Inness (1825-1894) brought a distinctly religious enthusiasm to his late tonal works, inspired in part by the religious mysticism of the Swedish scientist-visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and Ralph Blakelock frequented spiritualist circles where Swedenborg was esteemed. George Inness was consumed by his exploration of the subjective mystery of nature in the everyday. He wrote eloquently of the importance to his art of the “civilized landscape,” rural scenes of human habitation that speak to memory and offer a glimpse into realms of the spirit. Inness believed the artist’s central task was to elicit an emotion from the viewer. His late visionary landscapes encapsulate the underlying Tonalist strategy to produce an art expressive of mood, of insights into the human spirit by way of landscapea painted transcription of the individual artist’s response to nature. These subtle and charming expressions were achieved, not by a detailed realistic rendering of a specific placeas Tonalist artists criticized both their Hudson River forbearers and Impressionist colleagues for doingbut by a synthesizing process in the studio in which the painter often worked from memory to manipulate light effects and simplify and harmonize compositional elements until obtaining an evocative whole. The goal was an overall decorative unity that was both pleasing to the eye and touched the soul.
Because Tonalist landscapes tended to be generalized places, as opposed to recognizable locations, they often lacked local associations and anecdotal subject matter, thus allowing greater scope for the imagination. As a result, these paintings resonate with aesthetic and spiritual overtonesredolent of a better time and place that appealed to patrons and critics weary of the growing clamor of urban life and the social and economic upheaval of rapid industrialization. By the 1890s, Tonalism and Impressionism were recognized by critics and collectors, if not as competing styles, certainly as different aesthetics. Tonalism was fundamentally a landscape art: subdued, profound, and spiritual. Impressionism also concentrated on landscape, but included more cosmopolitan and narrative subject matterincluding the figureand employed high-keyed colors and broken brushwork to capture scintillating sunlit effects. The aesthetics of the two styles were not mutually exclusive and artists from both camps freely borrowed from one another. Thomas Dewing (1851-1938) is often included among the Impressionists because of his figurative subject matter, but is firmly in the Tonalist school, more a follower of Degas than Monet.
In 1901, the eclectic critic Sadikichi Hartmann, writing about the Tonalist artist Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) succinctly touched on the heart of the matter in terms of the artistic aspirations of the Tonalists.
With works of art it should be very much as with human beings, they should possess a soul, an individuality, a certain something which cannot be materially grasped, but which produces in the sympathetic spectator feelings, similar to those the artist felt in his creative moments.”
By 1914, the Tonalist landscape was such an established fixture on the American art scene that the artists employing this style were referred to as a group or school, led by the landscape painter and teacher Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916). In an introduction to a book of Ranger’s lectures on art and Tonalism, Art-Talks with Ranger (1914), arts writer Ralcy Husted Bell wrote glowingly of Ranger and the movement he espoused.
All those who are familiar with the finest examples of the Tonal School must be impressed with their sensuous swing and play of colour, which are wedded to such delightful designs and pleasing patterns that they neither seem like designs nor yet suggest patterns. So agreeably are all the parts connected, that they are seen only together: fused in a nice relation to the whole…These noble specimens disclose a mastery of the relations which assemble and unify all the components of a picture into a single broad harmony…Better than the votaries of any other school known to me, the Tonalist catches the laughter of shimmering light, and transmutes it into pictorial joy; he speaks admirably the old mother-tongue of cloud, tree, pool, and stone; he interprets the spring; he is summer’s scribe, page to the majesty of autumn, and priest to the whole round year. With a simple palette, and as if by magic, he expresses breadth, teasing transparency, mysterious distances, the illusion of luminosityin a word, the drama of air, light, and colour. Taken all in all, his pictures challenge, please, and convince. As a last refinement, he permeates them with his own individuality, and thus may he be called a creator.
Tonalism as a movement and school of landscape painting lasted well into the 1920s and was a critical influence on artists of the Stieglitz Circle like John Marin (1870-1953) and Marsden Hartley (1872-1943), and later inspired modernists Milton Avery (1885-1965) and even Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) who drew on the romantic abstraction of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Today, contemporary artists such as Wolf Kahn (1927- ), Russell Chatham (1939- ), and April Gornic (1953- ) look back to the heritage of American Tonalism for inspiration in their work.
Written by David Adams Cleveland and excerpted from his exhibition catalogue essay in Intimate Landscapes, Charles Warren Eaton and the Tonalist Movement in American Art 1880 1920, De Menil Gallery at Groton School, September 26 to December 14, 2004.