Tonalism, a style of 19th century American art, uses muted, often somber tones to convey mood and atmosphere in landscape painting. Tonalism conveys a feeling of introspection, of being alone with nature and contemplating something beyond our reach. I’ve only recently heard about this style of painting, and it encompasses so much of what I love to include in my own artwork. I started to take a research deep dive, and in this post, we’ll look at the history of Tonalism, examine some of its most iconic works, and consider the relevance of this artistic style today.
History of Tonalism
Tonalism emerged in the United States in the late 19th century as a response to the rapid industrialization of the country. Artists sought to create a sense of harmony and serenity in their paintings, which stood in contrast to the noise and chaos of modern life. The movement was heavily influenced by the Barbizon School of painting, which emphasized the atmospheric effects of nature and the mood of the landscape. The tonalist painters aimed to create a unified tonal harmony in their paintings.
Famous Tonalist Landscape Painters
Some of the most iconic examples of tonalism in landscape art come from the work of George Inness, James McNeill Whistler, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Inness, who is considered the father of tonalism, created paintings that were characterized by their softness and atmospheric effects. His painting “The Lackawanna Valley” is a great example of tonalism, showcasing common techniques such as a limited, muted color palette and soft brush strokes adding to the serene feeling of the view depicted. The saturated color of the trees and grass in the foreground fades beautifully to the muted, hazy tone of the mountains in the background.
The color palette of Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold” creates a sense of harmony and serenity. Its more abstract in its rendering of the scene. I love how the fireworks resemble sparkling stars in the night sky. Finally, Ryder’s “Moonlit Cove” utilizes soft brushwork to create a moody and atmospheric landscape.
Tonalism in the 21st Century
While tonalism emerged in the late 19th century, it continues to be appreciated by artists and collectors today. Many contemporary landscape painters continue to be influenced by the tonalist style, including me! I should say, I actually didn’t realize the influence this movement had on my work, as I only recently learned about it! I see it now, mainly in subject and color. My landscapes generally feature a moonlit landscape scene, and I use a palette featuring deep blue and rich green tones.
Moonlight River Landscape Art Print
Tonalism had a significant impact on the development of landscape art in the United States. It represented a departure from the more traditional approaches to landscape painting, which often focused on capturing every detail of the landscape. Tonalism emphasized the atmospheric effects of nature and the mood of the landscape, which allowed artists to create paintings that were more expressive and emotional.