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The 4 Most Important Names of Tonalism

  • George Inness - Moonrise
November 9, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The Impressionism appeared in France around 1870s, but the rebellious spirit of the new tendencies swiftly sprawled across the globe. The American artists also embraced the innovative painterly approach, yet they developed their own version called Tonalism.

Namely, this particular style developed in the 1880s after several American painters started producing landscapes saturated with the tonal layering of dark hues and overall misty atmosphere. Around the 1890s the art critics proposed the term “tonal” to describe these works. Tonalism was a movement rooted in the use of color in order to best express the visual qualities of a landscape through paint. The leading proponents of this style were James McNeill Whistler and George Inness.

Artists of the Tonalism Art Movement

Although Tonalism is compered or seen as derived from Impressionism, it has its roots in the French Barbizon style. During the years after the American Civil War, many artists went to Europe where they studied and set foundations of their practices. The mentioned Barbizon school was at the time really popular, while Impressionism was emerging.

The American painters were able to see soft landscapes by the Barbizon’s, and some of them were so fascinated with this school that they moved to the Village of Barbizon. The ones who returned to The States influenced the following generation.

That is how the Tonalism was formed, so the paintings made in this style are soft, yet expressive, exploring the luminous effects of the landscape at twilight or evening. Although the majority of the Tonalist paintings are deployed of figuration, some of them feature figures found out of doors or in a humble interior.

To bring you closer the aesthetic of Tonalism, we decided to expose four leading painters at the time, some of them being extremely influential figures who paved the way for Modernism.

Featured image: George Inness – Moonrise, 1887. Oil on canvas. Height: 51.4 cm (20.2 ″); Width: 77.5 cm (30.5 ″). Collection Yale University Art Gallery. Image creative commons.

  • Albert Pinkham Ryder - The Waste of Waters Is Their Field

Albert Pinkham Ryder

The first painter on our top list associated with Tonalism is American Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847 –1917), celebrated for his outstandingly poetic and allegorical scenes and seascapes, as well as his eccentric persona. Although Ryder shared interests with his contemporaries, his aesthetic was in general considered by some art historians as modernist.

Ryder was born in the coastal town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, which definitely tackled his artistic fancy. The 1880s and 1890s are considered as the artist’s most fruitful years since he exhibited frequently and his work was acclaimed by critics. Additionally, his paintings were accompanied by poetry, giving an additional flavor to his practice. The artists such as Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock were very much influenced by this work.

Albert Pinkham Ryder often took as many as ten years to finish some of the paintings, since he took the process of creation quite seriously. Each painting was done meticulously – Ryder used to layer the scene by painting into wet varnish, applying a layer of fast-drying paint over a layer of slow-drying paint, and occasionally using unconventional materials, such as bitumen, candle wax, and non-drying oils.

The Waste of Waters Is Their Field is an exemplary scene based on a poem written by the Englishman Robert Southey, narrating the oceanic voyage of a medieval king to the New World. Such inspiration was affiliated with his interest in human destiny.

Featured image: Albert Pinkham Ryder – The Waste of Waters is Their Field, circa 1880. Oil on panel, 28.8 × 30.5 cm (11.3 × 12 ″). Collection Brooklyn Museum. Image creative commons.

  • George Inness - Sunrise

George Inness

The acclaimed landscape painter and perhaps one of the most influential American artists of the nineteenth century, George Inness began his career at the time when the Hudson River School was at its peak; he was deeply influenced by the Old Masters, and the Barbizon school, as well as the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. At a certain point, Inness started painting in the Tonalist style, which could then be referred to as Quietism.

Throughout the four decades-long career, Inness’s style shifted constantly from Realism to Impressionism and vice versa, but he was nevertheless able to remain focused by producing powerful works which were always well excepted. Inness was an indisputable master of color, light, and shadow, whose careful layered scenes evoked both the spiritual and physical experience. As the great painter used to say, he aimed to express the reality of the unseen and to connect the visible upon the invisible.

Sunrise is among his best-ranked landscapes made by the artist during the final stage of his career. Although its exhibition history and the analyzes are obscure, the painting perfectly illustrates Inness’s domains.

Featured image: George Inness – Sunrise, circa 1892. Oil on canvas. Height: 70.6 cm (27.7 ″); Width: 110.4 cm (43.4 ″). Collection Brooklyn Museum. Image creative commons.

  • John Henry Twachtman - Arques-la-Bataille

John Henry Twachtman

The distinct impressionist style of the American painter John Henry Twachtman (1853 –1902) was perhaps the most experimental and personal among his generation. He belonged to a group of American artists called The Ten, founded in 1898 as a result of the discontent caused by professional art organizations.

The prolific painter initially received art training under Frank Duveneck. Then he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich from 1875 to 1877 and visited Venice with and William Merritt Chase and Duveneck. Throughout his studies, alongside painting Twachtman also learned etching, From 1883 to 1885, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, where his painterly approach shifted to the Tonalist style.

Twachtman’s greatest masterpiece called Arques-la-Bataille was made during that period in France. This tender scene features Arques-la-Bataille, little town four miles southeast of Dieppe, in Normandy, and is reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes, as well as Japanese woodblock prints.

Featured image: John Henry Twachtman – Arques-la-Bataille, 1885. Oil on canvas, height: 152.4 cm (60 ″); Width: 200.3 cm (78.8 ″). Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image creative commons.

  • James McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket
  • James McNeill Whistler - Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1

James McNeill Whistler

The last but certainly not least is James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Although born American, this renowned figure spent most of his life in the United Kingdom; he stood before the credo “art for art’s sake” and opposed moral allusion and sentimentality in painting. Whistler was hugely inspired by music, and so he often called his works harmonies, arrangements, and nocturnes, underlining the dominance of tonal harmony. His combative and decisive persona proved to be quite influential at the time for his theories and liaisons with the most prominent artists and writers.

Among Whistler’s most famous works is a beautiful painting Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket made in 1875. The scholars perceive it as an embodiment of the mentioned “art for art’s sake” credo (a concept coined by Charles Baudelaire and Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier). The celebrated composition was inspired by the celebrated pleasure resort in London called the Cremorne Gardens and it features the industrial city park with the firework above it in the foggy night sky. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was shown for the first time in 1877, at the London based Grosvenor Gallery, and is considered to be the peak of Whistler’s middle period, and gained attention after a notorious dispute Whistler had with the art critic John Ruskin.

The second artwork is definitely Whistler’s best-known painting – the iconic Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 or simply Whistler’s Mother made in 1871. This simplified portrait became practically a symbol of American values, and one of the most cited paintings in popular culture ever, so it is not unusual that it was often described as “a Victorian Mona Lisa”.

Featured images: James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, 1875. Oil on panel. Height: 60.3 cm (23.7 ″); Width: 46.4 cm (18.2 ″). Collection Detroit Institute of Arts. Image creative commons; James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother Whistler’s Mother, 1871. Oil on canvas. Height: 144.3 cm (56.8 ″); Width: 162.4 cm (63.9 ″). Collection Musée d’Orsay. Image creative commons.