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Tonalism Collage
Started: 1870
Ended: 1915
Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like a breath on the surface of a pane of glass.
James Whistler Signature

Summary of Tonalism

Working within a carefully chosen palette of closely related colors, the Tonalists aspired to emulate musicality and inspire contemplation. By arranging color and forms, they believed that landscapes could evoke emotion and suggest deep, cosmic harmonies. Their gentle color schemes and softly brushed contours quickly became popular, influencing musicians and poets. Unlike their contemporaries, such as the Luminists and the Impressionists, the Tonalists favored cool palettes and often chose nocturnal or modest scenes of contemplative quiet. The simplicity and attention to composition found in Tonalism contributed to the abstractions that would develop in 20th-century American modernism.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of Tonalism

Tonalism Image

The term Tonalism describes a style of American art focused primarily on depicting landscape, emphasizing tonal values to express mood or poetic feeling. Its origins date back to the early 1870s, when James McNeill Whistler, an innovator who would come to be identified with the style, began using musical terms like "nocturnes," to title his work. At this time, he started looking at paintings as if they were like musical compositions, arranging tonal values and colors as a composer would score a series of related notes. The style caught on quickly: by the 1890s, the term "Tonal School" was used to describe artists who emphasized closely-related palettes and in 1910 the modernist critic Sadakichi Hartmann wrote, "Tone is the ideal of the modern painter. It is his highest ambition. It is the powerful subduer of all the incongruities of modern art." Shortly thereafter, however, the movement faded from popularity, replaced by more abstract approaches to modernism.

Important Art and Artists of Tonalism

James Whistler: Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871)

Artist: James Whistler

One of the iconic (and often parodied) paintings, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother," this work is both a portrait of resolute poise and severity and a color study in delicately modulated shades of black and gray. The title, with its musical vocabulary, suggests that the arrangement of tones and shapes was of primary interest to Whistler, even as he painted a likeness of his own mother.

Seated primly and staring straight ahead, her folded hands holding a white handkerchief and her feet resting on a footrest, the woman conveys a sense of alert and self-contained repose. The palette is similarly restrained, with broad black and grey planes contrasted only by the asymmetrical black and white pattern of the curtain on the left side of the frame. With this monochromatic color scheme that displays tones of gray, from the greenish gray of the floor to the slate gray of the drape, we witness the development of the Tonalist style. And, with its melancholic color scheme, the interior takes on an elegiac feeling, becoming a kind of visual poem on age; as Whistler explained, "As light fades and the shadows deepen, all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses: the buttons are lost, but the sitter remains." In this poetic description, we see the simplification of the forms and the quietness of Whistler's palette as meaningful signifiers; his minimalism sought to present the essence of the subject and create a contemplative mood that allowed it to be best appreciated. This idea of an essential truth that was more evocative than literally illusionistic would influence the development of American modernism; it allowed artists the freedom to abstract their subjects in the quest for more evocative suggestion than outright description.

While the Tonalists were inspired by musical composition, their work also impacted composers; this painting had a profound influence on Claude Debussy, who described his Nocturnes (1899) composition as the musical equivalent of "what a study in grey would be in painting." Today, this image has become part of cultural consciousness, featured in films like Babette's Feast (1986), Bean (1997), and I Am Legend (2007), as well as television episodes of The Simpsons and America's Next Top Model, Cycle 5. It has evoked countless reproductions and parodies.

James Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875)

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875)

Artist: James Whistler

This landscape provides the barest indications of its setting in London's Cremona Gardens, emphasizing instead the falling flares of a firecrackers that illuminate the inky black sky and reflect in the river below. The title demonstrates his compositional approach to the nearly-abstract painting; as Whistler explained, "By using the word 'nocturne' I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and color first."

Whistler painted six Nocturnes depicting this park, which with its theatres, restaurants, maze, and indoor bowling alley, was a popular gathering spot. However, rather than painting scenes of social activity, he focused on the firework displays or moonlit scenes of the garden. In the foreground, several women can be seen standing on the shore, their forms distinct but almost transparent.

The abstract and unfinished nature of this depiction led the art critic John Ruskin to describe this particular work to a "pot of paint" thrown in the "public's face." Claiming this libelous assault damaging to his career, Whistler sued. The resulting trial became a highly publicized debate on the nature of art, as Whistler argued the Aesthetic Movement's belief in "art for art's sake." This defense claimed a purpose for painting beyond mimesis: rather than representing a story, a historical incident, or recording nature, art was an interplay of formal qualities such as line and color. Talent (and accordingly, value) was in the expressionist and aesthetic inventiveness of the artist, not the ability to illusionistically recreate the seen world.

During the trial, when asked if the work was meant to be a view of Cremorne, Whistler's responded, "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne." This emphasis on the notion of arrangement underscores the formal direction of Whistler's style. Indeed, the tonal variations of black and gold (such as the inky black on the left where a few gold embers fall, varying to the pale bluish slate of the water) are the painting's primary subject. This definition of painting as an artistic arrangement impacted the development of Tonalism but also had a long-lasting effect upon the development of Modernism as it blazed a trail away from the traditions of illusionism and Realism.

John Henry Twachtman: Arques-la-Bataille (1885)

Arques-la-Bataille (1885)

Artist: John Henry Twachtman

Twatchman uses the natural forms of this riverscape to create an atmospheric realm of harmony and balance, giving emotional power to this otherwise unassuming landscape. The horizontal lines of the riverbank and the misty green grey hill in the background evoke the gentle merging of the stream of Béthune, as it flows into the Arques River. The viewer is led into this scene by a foreground border of long reeds and grasses that provide a counterbalance of organic vertical lines, while the reflection of the hill divides the river horizontally between lighter and darker tones of gray. The broad expanses of matte shades of subdued blues and greens flatten the pictorial space, creating a sense of near-abstraction. Thinly painted, the work relies on subtle tonal gradations, rather than dramatic contrasts.

In 1884, Twachtman was studying at the Académie Julian in Paris when he rented a summer home in Arques-la-Bataille (in Normandy) to focus on sketching scenes of this river valley. From these preliminary, naturalistic sketches, he created this work in his Paris studio the following year. This distance from the original scene allowed him to take greater liberties with rearranging and abstracting individual components to create a more unified depiction.

Like many American artists of the time who studied or travelled in European artistic circles, Twachtman was influenced by both the example of Whistler's paintings and Japanese woodblock prints. Critics of the day proclaimed that, as Whistler painted night, Twachtman painted day. The translation of light into flat planes of color, arranged along a grid, but asymmetrically composed, reflected the style of Japanese prints, which were also being studied by the Impressionists. Twachtman's work, though similar in subject, remained a carefully made studio production, unlike the loose brushwork and improvisational manner of his Impressionist contemporaries. When he returned to America, these French paintings were considered his masterpieces and were critical in spreading the Tonalist style.

Useful Resources on Tonalism


Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Archino

"Tonalism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Sarah Archino
Available from:
First published on 14 Nov 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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