American Tonalism – A Poetic Approach to Painting

Henry Ward Ranger –Fall Landscape  (Spanierman Gallery)

Henry Ward Ranger –Fall Landscape (Spanierman Gallery)

This artistic movement was basically focused on landscape painting (though not completely) and flourished from about 1880 to 1915 or so. This also was during the time when American Impressionism was flourishing. After about 1915, the tonalist movement was virtually forgotten although many of the artists who were involved in the movement continued to practice the stylistic mode essentially unchanged. I have been drawn to “tonalism” and the art of the artists who were influential in this movement since first learning about it when I attended an exhibition at Grand Central Galleries of New York. The paintings in the exhibition were sensitive, reserved in the use of color and evoked a wonderful and poetic vision of the landscape subjects being portrayed. Grand Central published a book/catalogue which is now long since out of print; but Spanierman Galleries of New York has recently published a wonderful book on this subject – The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism – which is worthy for every artist and collector’s library. The concepts and facts about American Tonalism contained in Spanierman’s book are gratefully acknowledged and we certainly applaud Spanierman Galleries’ contribution to illuminating information about this important artistic movement and the art of the artists who pursued it. In addition, David A Cleveland has written an extensive book about tonalism entitled A History of American Tonalism: 1880 – 1920 which also merits consideration for any artist’s library.

Henry Ward Ranger was one of the leaders of Tonalist painting. Ranger said that “Tonality to us means just one thing and but one thing. If you were to give it an arbitrary definition you might say, harmonious modulations of colour.” Others might say that you see the landscape through coloured atmosphere or mist to get an evenness of tone. The Tonalists focused on (or perhaps preferred) an overall gray tone, blue evening and night scenes were particularly prevalent. The French Impressionists laid down colour against each other to gain a vibrancy without making any attempt to blend them. American Tonalists usually mixed colors after applying them on the canvas – working to gain a harmonious paint surface rich with a variety of edges. As noted by Dr. Lisa Peters of Spanierman Gallery: “Although the Tonalist movement was established essentially as a reaction against impressionism – in the perception that it was overly scientific and a foreign import – many American artists felt free to combine aspects of the two styles.”

John Henry Twachtman – “Windmill in the Dutch Countryside” (Spanierman Gallery)

John Henry Twachtman – “Windmill in the Dutch Countryside” (Spanierman Gallery)

Tonalist painters usually also sought intimate segments of sometime flat and marshy (and at most gentle hilly scenes). Fragment bits of nature devoid of human activity. The favorite time of day might be dawn, early morning, dusk, twilight or evening – and the seasons most often depicted were later autumn, winter or at the latest early spring. Seasons of emptiness and bareness – all designed to create a mood…a poetic vision of the landscape.

So, the Tonalist artists were concerned primarily with creating a “poetic vision” – suggesting in pure landscape the feelings of reverie and nostalgia. They generally did plein air sketches or studies and then painted larger studio versions – often these larger painting might be “from memory” (the studies having been discarded).

Birge Harrison – “Fifth Avenue at Twilight” (Spanierman Gallery)

Birge Harrison – “Fifth Avenue at Twilight” (Spanierman Gallery)

Artists often associated with tonalism include Henry Ward Ranger, Ralph Blakelock, George Bogert, Bruce Crane, Charles Melville Dewey, Charles Warren Eaton, Arthur Hoeber, William Lathrop, Robert Minor, J. Francis Murphy, George Inness, Alexander Wyant, Homer Dodge Martin, Leon Dabo, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight Tryon, J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman. Clearly there was a link between the early-nineteenth century Romanticism and the poetic mode of Tonalism. Twachtman’s painting of the Dutch windmill scene demonstrates the use of reserved color and tonal characteristics so strong in many of his paintings.

Birge Harrison and Arthur Hoeber both were tonalist related. Harrison wrote a book “Landscape Painting” (published in 1909) taught at the Art Students League in New York City and the League’s summer program at Woodstock where he perpetuated his own “moonlight and mist” atheistic. A good example of Harrison’s work is his nocturnal painting of Fifth Avenue in New York. His student and friend, John Fabian Carlson continued his focus at Woodstock and his book on landscape painting has been widely used by student artists. The concept of being reserved in the use of color is not only a concept of tonalism. Sir Winston Churchill, in his book, Painting as a Pastime, is very clear on the benefits of maintaining a strong reserve of color.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler - "Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge"

James Abbot McNeill Whistler – “Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge”

James Abbott McNeill Whistler - "Nocturne: Blue and Gold, ­Southampton Water"

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – “Nocturne: Blue and Gold, ­Southampton Water”

The nocturnal paintings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler are among the most beautiful – and influential – paintings of any genre. For example, the Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge evokes such poetry in art. Adding any additional color notes would simply detract from the visual impact and the effect captured by Whistler. The series of these nocturne paintings are stunning and should capture the attention (and the imagination) of any artist wishing to learn from a master!

Alfred Stieglitz – "The Hand of Man" (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Alfred Stieglitz – “The Hand of Man” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eduard Steichen and his friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, were also “tonalists” in many ways. Stieglitz’s photograph, The Hand of Man, shows the poetry of his photography – of its soft edges and composition. Though Steichen ultimately focused his artistic effort on photography, his paintings in the early 1900s were evocative and very tonal in nature. Early in his life, Steichen was very interested in painting and he adapted much of his focus on edges and tonal qualities in his photography into his paintings. Soft edges, mysterious and evocative ideas and subtle tonal values formed the core of Steichen’s approach – both in his paintings and in his early photography.

Eduard Steichen – "Landscape with Avenue of Trees" (Private Collection)

Eduard Steichen – “Landscape with Avenue of Trees” (Private Collection)

Steichen’s painting “Landscape with Avenue of Trees” is a wonderful example of Tonalism at its finest. It is one of my favorite paintings – and one which has not only been an influence to me but a number of my artist friends who seek to achieve the same sense of mastery of the craft. Another nocturnal painting which exhibits Steichen’s mastery of the art form is shown below. Unfortunately, there are only a few of Steichen’s paintings which survived his decision to focus entirely on photography – but those which did have are wonderful artist efforts worthy of study.

Eduard Steichen – "Balcony, Nocturne, Lake George" (Private Collection)

Eduard Steichen – “Balcony, Nocturne, Lake George” (Private Collection)

At the end of the day, the Tonalism movement was relatively short lived but had an important influence on American art. Its subtleness, poetic feeling, reserved color palette – all combined to make a wonderful and powerful artistic vision. For me, it is the essence of poetic art and truly a “poetic vision” as the title of the Spanierman book proclaims. You may check out more images by visiting the Spanierman website which contains their past exhibitions. It’s worth your time.

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