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Tonalism


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Term describing late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American painting and photography characterized by harmonious colors, vaguely defined forms, introspective moods, and romantic appreciation for nature. Generally rejecting scientific and materialist approaches to reality, tonalists adopted an intuitive and sometimes spiritual point of view. Specializing in evocative, intimate pastoral views, they rarely engaged the urbanizing, industrializing world they inhabited. Not an organized movement, tonalism represented a sensibility rather than a style. Among painters, George Inness and James Abbott McNeill Whistler spearheaded its development. Other prominent adherents included Ralph Blakelock, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight Tryon, and John Twachtman. Photographers associated with pictorialism often worked in a similar spirit. They included Gertrude Kasebier, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Clarence White. Widespread from the 1880s into the early 1900s, tonalism prevails in the work of many who—earlier, later, or concurrently—worked also in other modes, partly because, with its roots in Barbizon and luminist painting, tonalism overlapped other contemporary tendencies. Tonalists studied effects of color and light in nature, but they avoided impressionism's colorful sparkle and exuberant temperament. They cultivated the unknowable, but they preferred meditative serenity to symbolist drama. Japonisme influenced their taste for simplicity, patterning, and asymmetry. Acknowledging tonalism's prevailingly muted color schemes, the term appeared occasionally in critical writing of the early twentieth century. However, it came into general use only after 1972, when art historian Wanda Corn (1940– ) published The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1880–1910, which served as the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name.

Subjects: Art.


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