Tonalism was an art movement which emerged in the United States during the 1870s and was characterized by hazy and atmospheric landscapes and muted color palettes. In this post, I will discuss some of the key facts, ideas, artists and take a closer look at some master Tonalist paintings.
Key Facts and Ideas
- The movement lasted between 1870 to 1915. It was mostly based in the United States, but there was also a rise of Australian Tonalism in the 1910s.
- It was inspired by the moody and atmospheric landscapes produced by Barbizon School artists, like the one below.
- Tonalist artists were not focused on creating perfectly rendered and accurate paintings, nor were they focused on telling stories or ideas. They believed in “art for art’s sake”.
- Music was also a strong influence on Tonalism. Notable artists from the movement often used musical references to describe their works. James McNeill Whisler even went so far as to name some of his best works with musical terms, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. I take a closer look at both of these paintings later in this post.
"To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano." James McNeill Whisler
- Landscapes and nature were the main subjects, but portraits were also painted from time to time.
- Like the Impressionists, the Tonalists were interested in capturing the effects of light, particularly moonlight or the hazy light from dawn or dusk. Many of the Tonalist artworks feature a strong contrast between a dark and moody foreground and the "glow" of an ambient light source in the background, like in the painting below by George Inness.
Defining Characteristics of Tonalism
Tonalist paintings tend to have the following defining characteristics:
- A moody and dramatic atmosphere.
- Loose and visible brushwork.
- A lack of detail or fine rendering, particularly in the darks.
- Muted colors (dull yellows, greens, oranges, browns and grays).
- A strong contrast between light and dark, or saturated and dull, usually to bring attention to the light source in the painting.
- A lack of any underlying meaning or storytelling.
- A strong focus on nature.
Figurehead Artists of Tonalism
For a lesser-known art movement, it did produce many highly renowned artists, such as:
- James Abbott McNeill Whistler
- George Inness
- Arthur Frank Mathews
- Albert Pinkham Ryder
- Ralph Albert Blakelock
- Thomas Wilmer Dewing
- Julian Alder Weir
- Robert Swain Gifford
- Alexander Thomas Harrison
- John La Farge
- Lowell Birge Harrison
- John Francis Murphy
- John Henry Twachtman
A Closer Look at Tonalist Artworks
James Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871
Whistler's portrait of his mother is one of his most iconic paintings. The name of the painting suggests the influence of music, with Whislter arranging the gray and black shapes like a composer arranges musical notes. If you squint at the painting, you can clearly see the arrangement of dominant shapes. In particular, notice how his mother's black dress merges in with the black part of the wall, creating one solid shape.
There is a pleasing balance between large areas of simplified detail (the wall, floor and black dress) and small areas of intricate detail (the subject's face, hands, the framed picture and the decorations on the curtain).
Key Takeaway: Small areas of intricate detail can have the same, or greater, impact as large areas of simplified detail. This can be a powerful compositional technique which you can apply to your own paintings.
James Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875
Here is another of Whistler's paintings named in reference to music; Nocturne can refer to a musical composition which is inspired by the night. Whistler wrote the following about the painting:
"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." James McNeill Whistler
The painting features firecrackers falling over London’s Cremorne Gardens. But you would struggle to identify that without knowing the context or title of the painting due to the level of abstraction used by Whistler.
John Twachtman, Arques-la-Bataille, 1885
This is a great demonstration of how to use subtle grays in a painting, without it appearing bland or uninviting. The relatively saturated greens in the foreground contrast against the dull greens, blues and grays in the atmospheric background.
There is a sense of calm about the painting. The sky is broken up with some light tones to suggest clouds just above the horizon line. The water is still, with the reflection unbroken.
George Inness, Sunrise, 1887
One of the key takeaways from the Tonalism art movement is how to paint the illusion of light. Above is just about as close as you can come to painting the same intensity, richness and vibrancy of light itself. Inness did so by contrasting a dull, dark and green foreground against a vibrant background of rich yellows and oranges.
Tip: If you are trying to paint the illusion of warm light like the sunrise above, then be careful with using white to lighten your colors. Sometimes brighter, richer and more saturated colors are more effective than just lighter colors. Also, titanium white will make your colors cooler, so that can work against you when painting warm light sources.
“A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct. Not to edify. But to awaken an emotion.” George Inness
“The true use of art is, first, to cultivate the artist’s own spiritual nature.” George Inness
“Science for the soul.” Sadakichi Hartmann
“Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘arrangements’ and ‘harmonies.” James McNeill Whistler
“It looks like Barbizon, the land of Millet…This land has been farmed and cultivated by men, and then allowed to revert back into the arms of mother nature. It is only waiting to be painted.” Henry Ranger
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.)
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