TonalismRather than an organized artistic movement, tonalism was a style that emerged among American artists in the 1880s. Influenced by Romanticism and the emerging Symbolist movement in Germany, the Barbizon school in France, and Aestheticism as led by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Americans began to paint with a more poetic and expressive approach. Typical of the style is a neutral palette consisting mainly of cool colors, and favored landscape subjects capturing the mysterious and contemplative moments seen during dawn, dusk, rising mist, and moonlight. Artists such as Emil Carlsen, Bruce Crane, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, William Morris Hunt, George Inness, Hugh Bolton Jones, John La Farge, and Dwight William Tryon focused less on the individual elements of a composition and more on the image as a whole, building thin layers of glaze to create a subtle luminosity and an emphasis on the surface of the canvas in a way that foreshadowed the modernists. Tonalist landscapes focus less on capturing a specific location and more on evoking a mood or memory; the works are more generalized than earlier Hudson River School paintings and allow room for the artist’s imagination to explore dreamlike effects of light, air, and atmosphere. Birge Harrison and Henry Ward Ranger were both important teachers of the style and tonalism remained popular into the 1920s.
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