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Tonalism Collage

Tonalism - History and Concepts

Started: 1870
Ended: 1915
Tonalism Timeline

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.

Early Developments

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

Visually, Whistler's <i>Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl</i> (1862) shows the influence of the Aesthetic School and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but its musical title and emphasis on tonal variations of white prefigures Whistler's Tonalist style.

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.

In William Merritt Chase's <i>Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler</i> (1885), his adoption of Whistler's own style to devilishly caricature the artist, ended the close friendship between the two men.

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.

George Inness

E. S. Bennett's <i>Portrait of George Inness</i> (1890) shows the artist in his studio, surrounded by the landscapes for which he was acclaimed.

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

Marsden Hartley's <i>Albert Pinkham Ryder</i> (1938) combines Ryder's Tonalist color palette with his own style of bold relief to create an icon-like portrait of the painter who inspired Hartley's landscape series of 1909.

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

Photograph of Henry Ward Ranger painting outdoors near Mystic, Connecticut.

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."

Australian Tonalism

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.

Key Artists

  • James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.
  • Primarily a landscape painter, George Inness was known as a master of light, color, and shadow who was capable of eliciting great depth of feeling, mood, and atmosphere in his works.
  • The legendary and enigmatic American Romanticist, Ryder's forms evoked moods that drew him towards abstract fields of dense, muted color.
  • Edward Steichen was an important early photographer. He was an innovative fashion photographer and helped Alfred Stieglitz found with his first modernist projects.

Do Not Miss

  • The Hudson River School was a nineteenth century American art movement that celebrated the wilderness and great outdoors. The Hudson River School artists were influenced by the Romantics, using dramatic scenes of nature to express the American ideals of their time: discovery and exploration.
  • Luminism refers to a mid-nineteenth-century American school of painting, in which artists emphasized the effects of light and shadow in expansive landscapes. Luminism is related to French Impressionism given their respective emphases on light, but differs in that the American artists hid their brushstrokes and paid closer attention to glowing scenes of nature.
  • Naturalism is a movement within painting where the human subject is depicted in natural habitats and social milieus, with an emphasis on visual accuracy.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino

"Tonalism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino
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First published on 14 Nov 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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