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From the 1880's into the early 1900’s, Tonalism was an art movement which was prominent. It was used in both portraits and landscapes but was a particular draw for landscape painters. The resulting works were soft, muted and painterly.
The star of the Tonalism movement was James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an American who removed to England as an adult and lived as an expat. Most artists followed Whistler’s lead if they were Tonalists. Whistler was associated with both Tonalism and Aestheticism. The latter was because of his oft repeated assertion of doing “art for art’s sake.”
Some other Tonalists followed the lead of the Barbizon School as epitomized by George Innes. Still others combined the precepts of both Whistler and Innes.
Some Tonalists also incorporated the Symbolist Movement into their work. However Symbolists felt that their art works had to have serious underlying meaning. Whistler was against this idea. He felt doing the art, just to do it, with no loftier meaning to impart to it, was “art for art’s sake,” and good enough.
Tonalism ran counter to French Impressionism. That movement focused on high-keyed expression of sunlight and shade. Its painters had no interest in exploring Value and Tones. Thus, Tonalism was the more academic approach towards art as Value was an established art principle. Nothing about Impressionism was an existing art principle.
The Tonalists were a big influence on a new kind of artist, the fine artist photographer. The soft-focused prints of American photographers Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence White came from their observing the results of the Tonalist painters’ efforts.
EXCERPT after covering Whistler:
We covered Whistler first because there is no doubt that he was the shooting star in the firmament of Tonalism. If you want to understand tones and value, study Whistler’s work. More importantly, if you want to paint tones and value, study Whistler’s work.
The other artists in Tonalism follow, in alphabetical order. None of them are major artists like Whistler but most are well represented in museums and private collections. Remington is a major artist in American Art of the Old West. Although that is a very popular art niche, it does not yet have the same fine art cachet as other, more critically acclaimed movements.
You may never come to like purely Tonalist work. It is a niche area of art in its pure form. However, Value and Tones are among the hardest aspects of art and art history to grasp. It is a study of subtle gradations. Such a purist study of subtle gradations does not usually make for arresting art work… unless you are Whistler.
Few artists use Value and Tones the way the Tonalists did BUT they all use some aspect of Value in their art work. The challenge is to recognize it in art works and to use it to good effect in one’s own art work. It is a powerful tool.