Summary of Tonalism
Working within a carefully chosen palette of closely related colors, the Tonalists aspired to emulate musicality and inspire contemplation. By arranging color and forms, they believed that landscapes could evoke emotion and suggest deep, cosmic harmonies. Their gentle color schemes and softly brushed contours quickly became popular, influencing musicians and poets. Unlike their contemporaries, such as the Luminists and the Impressionists, the Tonalists favored cool palettes and often chose nocturnal or modest scenes of contemplative quiet. The simplicity and attention to composition found in Tonalism contributed to the abstractions that would develop in 20th-century American modernism.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Inspired by strategies of musical composition, the Tonalists developed theories of color and line that they believed heightened the symbolic potential of landscape painting. Building on the example of the Hudson River School artists, they rearranged elements of the observed world in order to better convey musical and visual harmonies.
- Tonalist painters emphasized both the formal components of their work - color, line, and shape - and the symbolic meaning conveyed to the viewer. Bypassing narrative as a means of communicating spirituality, their example was instrumental to the development of early-20th-century abstraction.
- The aesthetics of Tonalist painting appealed to Pictorialist photographers who wanted to establish photography as an artistic medium. By manipulating their exposures and printing, these photographers were able to simulate the atmospheric effects and tonal relationships that defined the style. This emphasis on process would influence generations of photographers, even after this style faded from popularity.
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Progression of Art
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
One of the iconic (and often parodied) paintings, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother," this work is both a portrait of resolute poise and severity and a color study in delicately modulated shades of black and gray. The title, with its musical vocabulary, suggests that the arrangement of tones and shapes was of primary interest to Whistler, even as he painted a likeness of his own mother.
Seated primly and staring straight ahead, her folded hands holding a white handkerchief and her feet resting on a footrest, the woman conveys a sense of alert and self-contained repose. The palette is similarly restrained, with broad black and grey planes contrasted only by the asymmetrical black and white pattern of the curtain on the left side of the frame. With this monochromatic color scheme that displays tones of gray, from the greenish gray of the floor to the slate gray of the drape, we witness the development of the Tonalist style. And, with its melancholic color scheme, the interior takes on an elegiac feeling, becoming a kind of visual poem on age; as Whistler explained, "As light fades and the shadows deepen, all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses: the buttons are lost, but the sitter remains." In this poetic description, we see the simplification of the forms and the quietness of Whistler's palette as meaningful signifiers; his minimalism sought to present the essence of the subject and create a contemplative mood that allowed it to be best appreciated. This idea of an essential truth that was more evocative than literally illusionistic would influence the development of American modernism; it allowed artists the freedom to abstract their subjects in the quest for more evocative suggestion than outright description.
While the Tonalists were inspired by musical composition, their work also impacted composers; this painting had a profound influence on Claude Debussy, who described his Nocturnes (1899) composition as the musical equivalent of "what a study in grey would be in painting." Today, this image has become part of cultural consciousness, featured in films like Babette's Feast (1986), Bean (1997), and I Am Legend (2007), as well as television episodes of The Simpsons and America's Next Top Model, Cycle 5. It has evoked countless reproductions and parodies.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
This landscape provides the barest indications of its setting in London's Cremona Gardens, emphasizing instead the falling flares of a firecrackers that illuminate the inky black sky and reflect in the river below. The title demonstrates his compositional approach to the nearly-abstract painting; as Whistler explained, "By using the word 'nocturne' I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and color first."
Whistler painted six Nocturnes depicting this park, which with its theatres, restaurants, maze, and indoor bowling alley, was a popular gathering spot. However, rather than painting scenes of social activity, he focused on the firework displays or moonlit scenes of the garden. In the foreground, several women can be seen standing on the shore, their forms distinct but almost transparent.
The abstract and unfinished nature of this depiction led the art critic John Ruskin to describe this particular work to a "pot of paint" thrown in the "public's face." Claiming this libelous assault damaging to his career, Whistler sued. The resulting trial became a highly publicized debate on the nature of art, as Whistler argued the Aesthetic Movement's belief in "art for art's sake." This defense claimed a purpose for painting beyond mimesis: rather than representing a story, a historical incident, or recording nature, art was an interplay of formal qualities such as line and color. Talent (and accordingly, value) was in the expressionist and aesthetic inventiveness of the artist, not the ability to illusionistically recreate the seen world.
During the trial, when asked if the work was meant to be a view of Cremorne, Whistler's responded, "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne." This emphasis on the notion of arrangement underscores the formal direction of Whistler's style. Indeed, the tonal variations of black and gold (such as the inky black on the left where a few gold embers fall, varying to the pale bluish slate of the water) are the painting's primary subject. This definition of painting as an artistic arrangement impacted the development of Tonalism but also had a long-lasting effect upon the development of Modernism as it blazed a trail away from the traditions of illusionism and Realism.
Oil on panel - The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Twatchman uses the natural forms of this riverscape to create an atmospheric realm of harmony and balance, giving emotional power to this otherwise unassuming landscape. The horizontal lines of the riverbank and the misty green grey hill in the background evoke the gentle merging of the stream of Béthune, as it flows into the Arques River. The viewer is led into this scene by a foreground border of long reeds and grasses that provide a counterbalance of organic vertical lines, while the reflection of the hill divides the river horizontally between lighter and darker tones of gray. The broad expanses of matte shades of subdued blues and greens flatten the pictorial space, creating a sense of near-abstraction. Thinly painted, the work relies on subtle tonal gradations, rather than dramatic contrasts.
In 1884, Twachtman was studying at the Académie Julian in Paris when he rented a summer home in Arques-la-Bataille (in Normandy) to focus on sketching scenes of this river valley. From these preliminary, naturalistic sketches, he created this work in his Paris studio the following year. This distance from the original scene allowed him to take greater liberties with rearranging and abstracting individual components to create a more unified depiction.
Like many American artists of the time who studied or travelled in European artistic circles, Twachtman was influenced by both the example of Whistler's paintings and Japanese woodblock prints. Critics of the day proclaimed that, as Whistler painted night, Twachtman painted day. The translation of light into flat planes of color, arranged along a grid, but asymmetrically composed, reflected the style of Japanese prints, which were also being studied by the Impressionists. Twachtman's work, though similar in subject, remained a carefully made studio production, unlike the loose brushwork and improvisational manner of his Impressionist contemporaries. When he returned to America, these French paintings were considered his masterpieces and were critical in spreading the Tonalist style.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
The sun rises in this hazy pastoral landscape, revealing a single silhouetted figure walking along a country path. In this brief moment of transition from night to day, the shapes of distant trees blur into the clouds where the sun glows framed by leafless branches. The darkness mutes the greens of the foreground, underscoring the solitude and mystery of this isolated figure. Inness's soft brushwork and closely hued palettes softens the edges of each element, creating a scene that is specific enough to be an actual place, but still ambiguous and timeless.
The symbolic potential of this work reflects the influence of the scientist and transcendentalist philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg. Baptized in Swedenborg's church, Inness's late landscapes deliberately sought to create a relationship between nature and spirituality. Capitalizing on the emotive and atmospheric effects of the Tonalist style, he sought to convey "the reality of the unseen." Accordingly, his works sought to depict a state of inner contemplation, an intimate encounter with nature, and also to recreate that sensation for the viewer. The masterful color gradations and his simple, abstracted shapes transform the human figure and two central trees into nearly equivalent sentinels who contemplate the coming dawn.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
This unconventional landscape is dominated by a nearly black foreground, broken by a lake bathed in moonlight. To the right, the shadowed shape of a black tree frames the mottled light of the sky, where the moon is a pale glowing orb. Blakelock was known for his experimental Tonalism, where he deviated both from the narrative approach of his contemporaries and their smoothly brushed canvases. Instead of the typical gradations of blues, greens, and grays, in this work a heavy, monochromatic black is varied by the yellow moonlight; the sharp color contrast is united through the physical intertwining of the choppy brushstroke, which creates an abstracting texture.
This highly unfinished style distorted his subjects and added to their mysterious nature. Indeed, the mood evoked by the work is heavily embodied in the elemental forms of land, water, and sky to which the landscape has been reduced. In a time-consuming and highly experimental process, Blakelock built up the surface of the canvas and then buffed and polished the surface, often using heavy and multiple coats of lacquer. The feathery texture can be most readily seen in his treatment of the moonlight sky. This emphasis on the physical surface of the painting, combined with the shadowy forms depicted, simultaneously suggest the painting as a flat space and one with perceptible depth.
Oil on canvas - Sheldon Art Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska
The manipulation of the landscape to create rhythmic patterning is clearly seen in Tryon's Tonalist paintings. This landscape, depicting a muted green pasture with a marshy pond in its center, is subtly composed of horizontal and vertical lines. The line of the horizon, lit by the sunrise, is emphasized by the parallel lines of tree-lined border to the meadow and its grassy patches that spread across the view. The line of tall trees creates a vertical thrust into the muted blue grey sky, while their foliage creates another horizontal register. These parallel lines were meant to function like musical phrasing, a theoretical notion unique to Tryon's Tonalism. Tryon said of painting that, "the less imitation, the more suggestion and hence more poetry."
Furthermore, each form in this painting seems to absorb color from its surroundings: the green of the meadow takes on the dark shades of earth, the pond reflects the light of the sunrise, the trees absorb the sky's yellow and the blue and green of the meadow. As a result, the work has a pervasive harmony that amplifies the symbolism of its subject: the awakening of morning is mirrored by a landscape of contemplative quiet, but one that hums with the beginning of exuberance.
The influence of Tryon's horizontal and vertical lines of composition can be seen in the contemporary works of Wolf Kahn, such as Green at the Bottom, Blue at the Top (2016), which depicts a row of birch trees that fill the canvas from left to right. In Kahn's version, the Tonalist palette is replaced by a progression of vibrant green and orange.
Oil on wood - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Landscape with Trees and Cattle
The bucolic scene of three cows, standing quietly in a sunlit pond, is enlivened by Ryder's unusual and dynamic framing: twisted and entwined trees rise on the left, arch over the top of the canvas to merge with swirling foliage and color from the right. The effect is akin to the eye of a storm, with a calm center encircled by energetic movement.
The pastoral scene recalls Théodore Rousseau's Forest of Fontainebleau, Morning (1849-1851), which depicts cattle drinking from a forest pond, lit in a golden glow. Yet Ryder brings to this interpretation his signature sense of mystery. Employing a Tonalist sense of harmonious color and atmospheric haze, he also reduces the elements of the scene and creates a fragmentary view. The twisting trunks of the trees convey a sense of cosmic energy, while the center circle and the dissolving ground makes the scene feel like an apparition or a view into another world. In their solidity and simplicity, the three cows suggest something primal and symbolic. This visionary quality distinguished Ryder among the Tonalists and influenced the development of Symbolism. Of the Tonalist group, his evocative and painterly canvases cast the longest shadow into the 20th century, influencing many artists, including Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock.
Oil on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
The Tonalist sensibilities were quickly adopted by Pictorialist photographers, who approximated the color gradations and softly abstracted forms by manipulating their processes of exposure and printing. Steichen, who also painted in the Tonalist style, demonstrates this photographic adaptation in his romanticized image of the Flatiron building in New York. The recently constructed, modern cast-iron building is softened in the twilight photograph, framed by the black traceries of a leafless tree, the rain-glistened foreground, a shadowy figure, and the outline of distant buildings. The distinctive triangular form of the Flatiron is a dark monolith, slowly rising through the center of the print.
Influenced by the composition of Japanese woodblock prints, Steichen creates a contrast between the delicate screen of the tree branches and the dark geometric forms of the buildings to depict the city as a mysterious poetic reverie. The building's pinnacle echoes the shape of the man, conveying a sense of repeated elemental form and a connection between him and his urban environment.
While Steichen employed a soft focus and long exposure time to achieve a painterly effect, he also altered the physical photograph to heighten this aesthetic. Using pigment-laden layers of gum arabic and potassium bichromate that he added to the original platinum print, Steichen was able to add color reminiscent of Whistler's Nocturnes. He made three different prints of this image, the first in 1905 and two, including this one, in 1909. Each one is a tonal exploration of different color values; this one emphasizes a greenish blue cast. Both formally and technically, Steichen's mastery of the Tonalist idiom in photography influenced subsequent photographers like Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Ansel Adams in the ongoing quest to establish photography as a fine art.
Gum bichromate over platinum print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Two trams pass each other amid a snowy city street, framed by buildings with glowing light strips that fade into the wintry mist. The urban background is suggested by a shadowy spire on the left and the vague shadows of distant structures and faint lights. Beckett's simplification of form abstracts the city, making it nearly unrecognizable. The trams become two murky cubes, the buildings are merely triangular shapes of darkness, and the sky is the empty space of a great inverted triangle that dominates the upper two thirds of the painting. The lights on the buildings are glowing slashes of pinkish orange paint in a work that is otherwise a modulation of tones of grey.
Reducing these monumental buildings into indistinct, blocky forms, the viewer is placed in an uncertain and inhospitable space. The headlamps of the two trams in the center become our focus; we stand in the path, straining to see clearly. The sense of being overwhelmed by the blizzard, transforms this ordinary sight into an elemental vision and a struggle against the elements. Beckett brought to Tonalism a minimalist sensibility that made her work influential to the development of Australian Minimalism and Conceptual art.
Oil on board - Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia
Beginnings of Tonalism
To Start: Defining Tonalism
The term Tonalism describes a style of American art focused primarily on depicting landscape, emphasizing tonal values to express mood or poetic feeling. Its origins date back to the early 1870s, when James McNeill Whistler, an innovator who would come to be identified with the style, began using musical terms like "nocturnes," to title his work. At this time, he started looking at paintings as if they were like musical compositions, arranging tonal values and colors as a composer would score a series of related notes. The style caught on quickly: by the 1890s, the term "Tonal School" was used to describe artists who emphasized closely-related palettes and in 1910 the modernist critic Sadakichi Hartmann wrote, "Tone is the ideal of the modern painter. It is his highest ambition. It is the powerful subduer of all the incongruities of modern art." Shortly thereafter, however, the movement faded from popularity, replaced by more abstract approaches to modernism.
In the 1870s a number of trends began to converge and form the movement that would be known as Tonalism, including the model of the Barbizon School (as shown in the paintings of George Inness), the Aesthetic Movement and Japanese woodblock prints (reflected in the works of James Abbott McNeil Whistler), and Symbolism (embraced by Albert Pinkham Ryder). These three distinct elements represent three different approaches, which became unified by their stylistic concerns for atmospheric painterliness and close tonal harmonies.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
A leader of the Aesthetic School and an ardent advocate of "art for art's sake," Whistler rose to fame with his Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862). Though the American Whistler was living in London, his painting received the most attention when it was shown at the 1863 Salon des Refusés in Paris. Here it aroused controversy for its portrayal of a young woman that challenged social mores, but also for its aesthetics, which rejected traditional standards of academic form and finish. Instead, Whistler's work, like that of his contemporary, Édouard Manet, focused on the formalist concerns of painting itself, prioritizing color harmonies and decorative, flat, surfaces over illusionism and grand narratives. With his reputation of a modern rebel, Whistler became the most famous American artist of his day. U.S. artists, students, and art collectors sought him out in London, then subsequently, in Paris, and Venice.
From this position of power and influence, Whistler's subsequent experiments impacted late-19th-century tastes in America, His night views of the Thames, first titled "moonlights," then "nocturnes," emphasized atmospheric tonal treatments, using a muted blue and green palette. Whistler became a celebrity, known not only for his work, but also for his social presence, wit, and much publicized engagement in artistic debates. Most notably, in 1877, he sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel. Ruskin had written a review of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, asserting that the "ill-educated conceit of the artist...nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture" and describing the painting as "a pot of paint" flung "in the public's face." Though Whistler won the trial, it was only a moral victory: he was awarded one farthing in damages, the expenses of the trial brought him near to bankruptcy, and the negative publicity drove away potential patrons.
For Whistler, the analogies between musical and painterly composition were central to his work. The titles of his paintings, often ordered in series or mediations on a theme, were directly based on the numbering practices of musical arrangements. More meaningful, however, was the precise calculations of the color harmonies and patterns of line and form, which he believed worked visually as did the melodies and harmonies of music, creating a mental or emotional image for the audience. This aspiration to musicality would influence many followers, who sought a path away from mimesis but wanted to maintain a meaningful subject and connection to the viewer.
As was common in the late-19th century, Whistler was influenced by Japanese art, but, unlike many of his contemporaries, this did not mean simply incorporating the trappings of Japonism into his work. Instead, Whistler adopted compositional strategies of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. This included simplifying the individual elements of the scene, emphasizing patterns, and showing twilight or night scenes with muted color palettes of blues and greens. Tonalists, like John Henry Twachtman, Arthur F. Matthews, and Dwight Tryon, were greatly influenced by Whistler's approach and these became motifs central to the new style.
Originally associated with the Hudson River School, George Inness was subsequently influenced by the works of the Barbizon School during his travels in Europe. In particular, he felt an affinity with the works of Théodore Rousseau, whose landscapes combined naturalistic detail with distinct Romanticism. This notion of embedding emotional content into the landscape became a point of focus, as Inness believed that the formal qualities of a painting were only important as an expression of spirituality. He wanted to harness these formal components of line and color to create mood-filled, atmospheric scenes. The simple subjects and expressive brushwork of the Barbizon artists also carried through into this new Tonalist style.
Albert Pinkham Ryder
The Barbizon School was also an early influence on Albert Pinkam Ryder; his Landscape with Cattle (c. 1886), shows a typical Barbizon pastoral scene with grazing cattle, but adds a level of symbolic and mysterious suggestion through palette and lighting. Unlike many of his colleagues, Ryder preferred narratives from mythology placed in a Tonalist landscape, such as his Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens (1888-1891). Ryder's moody and occasionally cryptic landscapes introduced a more Symbolist element to Tonalism; his followers, including Inness, often employed their subdued palettes to suggest an unknown or mystical world. With this approach, landscapes moved beyond naturalistic depictions to become mysterious inner dreamscapes, and a single figure became symbolic of isolation and mysterious presence as seen in Inness's Sunrise (1897).
Critical and Social Reception
Charles de Kay, a novelist, poet, and art critic for the New York Times, played a primary role in promoting the Tonalist style, though the term he used most often was "colorism." Believing that landscape painting expressed a uniquely American sensibility and spirituality, he championed the works of Ryder and Inness as being rooted in national values. Building on interpretations of the Hudson River School, de Kay promoted Tonalist landscapes as patriotic, writing "Americans who have been overcome by the admirable things that meet them on a visit to Europe have been blind to what their own land produces, as fine as and in many cases finer than the products of European hands."
The Tonalist painters in America were a close-knit group, as many of them had studios in New York, belonged to the Society of American Artists, National Academy of Design, and frequented social venues like the Lotus Club, The Century Club, and the Salmagundi Club. As a result, the style was relatively unified and it quickly became popular with middle-class patrons. By the late 1800s, however, the style had become so widely copied that some writers began to lampoon the ubiquitous autumnal tones as "the baked apple" or "brown gravy" school.
Tonalism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Photography and Pictorialism
In the late 1800s photography was dominated by Pictorialism, a movement that promoted photography as a fine art by emphasizing the painterly possibilities of exposing, developing, and printing images. The quiet color palettes and atmospheric effects of Tonalist paintings were an apt model and quickly influenced noted photographers like Clarence Hudson White, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. Of these, Steichen's work, depicting twilight and moonlit scenes, misty atmospheres, and tonal color gradations derived from experimenting with the photographic process exemplified the trend. His masterworks, like Moonlight, Winter (1902) reflect the influence of both Ryder and Blakelock. He was also a painter, occasionally combining Symbolist iconography into Tonalist composition; his Nocturne, Temple d'Armour (1910) depicts a female nude dancing on an island near a white temple to create an evocative emotionally work that suggests a narrative, but does not explain it. Similarly, White's photography emphasized portraits of women in twilight outdoor scenes or domestic interiors, combining photographic portraiture with a Tonalist treatment of the setting in order to create a poetic mood.
Old Lyme Colony
After painting in Europe, Henry Ward Ranger wanted to create an "American Barbizon." In 1899, he established the Old Lyme Colony in Connecticut as an artistic colony modeled on the French Barbizon group, but painting in a Tonalist style. A second generation of Tonalists, including Allen Butler Talcott, Henry Cook White, Bruce Crane, William Henry Howe, Louis Paul Dessar, and Jules Turcas were among the artists who joined the colony. They painted the local rural landscapes, favoring scenes of twilight and autumn. In 1903, Childe Hassam joined the colony and while initially he embraced Tonalism, his turn to Impressionism transformed the colony's focus to that style. It subsequently became known as the "American Giverny."
Primarily an American style, Tonalism did have an international following in Australia, centered around Duncan Max Meldrum in the 1910s. Awarded a student scholarship, Meldrum had traveled to Paris in 1899 where he encountered the works of Whistler. Returning to Melbourne, he began advocating for the use of tonal values to create scenes of atmospheric quality. His theories of painting "tone on tone" attracted a great number of artists. The group rejected narrative and de-emphasized color, preferring a limited palette, and soft focus. The Athenaeum Gallery in Melbourne held the first exhibition of works by Meldrum and his students in 1919. This same year, his theoretical essay, "The Invariable Truths of Depictive Art," was published, in which he argued that tonal relationships were the most important facet of painting, over proportion and color.
Artists associated with Meldrum's school included Percy Leasaon, Colin Colahan, Llord Rees, Roy de Maistre, Roland Wakelin, and most notably, Clarice Majoribanks Beckett. Beckett studied with Meldrum, but her work received little favorable attention in her time, even from her mentor, who declared that "there would never be a great woman artist and there never had been." She was posthumously rediscovered and is now regarded as one of the most important Australian modernists. Paintings such as her Passing Trams (1931), with their minimalist sense of form and nearly-abstract vocabulary, are seen as important influences on Minimalism and Conceptualism in Australia.
Later Developments - After Tonalism
Tonalism faded from popularity around 1915, following the Armory Show of 1913, although it did exert a continuing influence, particularly among the artists and photographers of Stieglitz's circle (including the photographer Paul Strand, and painters Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe).
Whistler had a wide-ranging influence on several generations of artists, both in the United States and Europe, including, Walter Sickert, John Singer Sargent, and William Merritt Chase. His simplification of elements to create a suggestive and evocative art also influenced the Impressionists, particularly Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, and also impacted the Symbolist movement. In the early-20th century, the art critic Charles Caffin claimed that Whistler "influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought."
Ryder's landscapes had an enduring impact on American modernism; Marsden Hartley painted a series of dark tonal landscapes after encountering them in 1909. Ryder also influenced Bill Jensen and Jackson Pollock who claimed "the only American master who interests me is Ryder." Ryder's work was also influential to the artist Milton Avery, whose formal concerns went on to influence the Abstract Expressionist artists Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, William Baziotes, and Mark Rothko.