Early Moonrise in Florida or Early Morning in Florida, George Inness

Tonalism – the American art of depicting nature in dark and neutral shades

Tonalism. James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Harmony in Green and Rose The Music Room
James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Harmony in Green and Rose The Music Room

Tonalism is a trend in American painting of the late XIX – early XX centuries, which is characterized by the predominance of dark and neutral tones in works. Supporters of tonalism in their work most often turned to the landscape genre, and the color palette usually contained gray, brown and dark blue shades.

Tonalism, unlike many other modernist movements, has a clear regional framework. Most of his followers are American in origin and place of residence. The closest to the works of tonalists in the manner of execution and mood in European painting can be called the works of the Impressionists and representatives of the Barbizon school.

Tonalism. James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Whistler Harmony in Flesh Color and Red
James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Whistler Harmony in Flesh Color and Red

Distinctive features

Tonalism embodies the artist’s special approach to the image of the surrounding space, in which the academic accuracy of copying nature is minimized. In their paintings, tonalists sought to convey their own mood, and not an impression, as the impressionists did.

The main distinguishing features of tonalism in painting are:

  • dominance of dark neutral shades;
  • lack of bright sunlight;
  • simplified composition and blurred outlines of objects;
  • expressiveness of strokes and the minimum degree of detail of objects.

Tonalists preferred to depict in their works intermediate states of nature – calm twilight, a serene dawn, or a mysterious fog. In their paintings, there are practically no bright colors, and the diffused light hardly breaks through the dense air space.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Summer (1890)
Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Summer (1890)

History of tonalism

The history of tonalism dates back to the 70s of the XIX century. It was then that the American artist James Whistler first presented his original paintings to the European public – nocturnes, written in the landscape genre.

Depictions of nature in dark shades were coolly received by critics, but many French artists, including Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas, were very popular. Whistler even received an offer to take part in the first impressionist exhibition, which he, however, refused.

Tonalism. Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Song (1891)
Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Song (1891)

In those days in Europe, academicism in art was replaced by a time of bright impressionism. In France, and then in other countries of the Old World, the new style gained immense popularity. But Whistler, who lived the rest of his life in Europe, despite harsh criticism and a difficult financial situation, remained faithful to his “tonal” principles.

For many years, until his death, he not only continued to paint in the style of tonalism, but was also actively involved in training young painters who came to him from America. Many of them, upon returning to their homeland, continued the work of the teacher. Thus, a powerful group of tonalists gradually formed in the United States, whose works today constitute an important part of the cultural heritage of the American nation.

Early Moonrise in Florida or Early Morning in Florida, George Inness
Early Moonrise in Florida or Early Morning in Florida, George Inness

Tonalism remained a popular trend in US fine art for several decades.

Only with the outbreak of the First World War, a radical change in cultural values ​​took place in American society, caused by global bloody events.

The era of Modernism and Avant-garde began, and the sophisticated public, instead of paintings by tonalists, began to give preference to the works of Dadaists, Surrealists, Post-Impressionists and representatives of other newfangled movements.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lute (1904)
Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lute (1904)
The most famous tonalist artists

Among the large number of followers of the popular American movement in art, two iconic figures stand out. The most famous tonalist artists are rightfully considered:

  1. James Whistler is a unique American painter who lived most of his life outside his homeland – in England and France. In addition to the landscape genre, Whistler is widely known for his pictorial portraits, as well as for the original musical names of his paintings – nocturnes, symphonies and arrangements.
  2. George Inness is an artist who took an active part in the Civil War of 1861-65 on the side of the northerners. Inness independently came to the ideas of tonalism in the late period of creativity, when he began to write gloomy works filled with tragedy and melancholy.
  3. Leon Dabo (Leon Dabo) – American painter of French origin, one of the few French in the history of visual arts, has earned widespread recognition in the United States. Unlike most of his fellow countrymen, Dabo took a great interest not in impressionism, but in tonalism and firmly linked his life with American fine art.
Frank Nudersher. Cherry blossom, 1914
Frank Nudersher. Cherry blossom, 1914

Tonalism has left a noticeable mark on history in American painting, although during the heyday of avant-garde art, it remained far from the interests of the general public. But since the end of the twentieth century, the demand for paintings by followers of this distinctive trend began to grow again.

George Inness
George Inness
White Birch, 1896-99, Thomas Wilmer Dewing
White Birch, 1896-99, Thomas Wilmer Dewing