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The Art Story Homepage Movements, Styles, and Tendencies Tonalism


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

Inspired by strategies of musical composition, the Tonalists developed theories of color and line that they believed heightened the symbolic potential of landscape painting. Building on the example of the Hudson River School artists, they rearranged elements of the observed world in order to better convey musical and visual harmonies.
Tonalist painters emphasized both the formal components of their work - color, line, and shape - and the symbolic meaning conveyed to the viewer. Bypassing narrative as a means of communicating spirituality, their example was instrumental to the development of early-20th-century abstraction.
The aesthetics of Tonalist painting appealed to Pictorialist photographers who wanted to establish photography as an artistic medium. By manipulating their exposures and printing, these photographers were able to simulate the atmospheric effects and tonal relationships that defined the style. This emphasis on process would influence generations of photographers, even after this style faded from popularity.
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.

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