The Secret of Tonalism

You've heard of Impressionism, but did you know there was before that a style very popular with American artist and their collectors called Tonalism? It's as American as Jazz and baseball, yet not well known because it was identified or rediscovered only recently, within the last forty years.

It's an open secret: the tonalist are alive and well and people like the style as much as ever. Seeing a modern tonalist painting today you may think it's impressionistic. While the line is blurred there is a difference between the two. Anyone could benefit from studying tonalist artwork...the principles are universal. It's a successful, time-tested, proven style you may want to consider adopting whole or in part. Why reinvent the wheel, stick with a winner!

"After Impressionism, painting went in many different directions. All kinds of "isms" sprang up - Symbolism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and Futurism, just to name a few. Realism went back to the Tonalist method of painting, and later the personalized method of Wyeth, which is a Tonalist approach." Prof. Sammy Britt (1993)

Here's a good summary of Tonalism thanks to

Description of the Tonalist Painting Style and Technique

Tonalism is rooted in the French Barbizon movement, which emphasized atmosphere and shadow. The Tonalist style employs a distinctive technique by the use of color's middle values as opposed to stronger contrast and high chroma. Resulting in a understated and compelling overall effect. The tonalist subject matter is never entirely apparent; their is no effort to communicate a message or narrate a story.  Instead of relating a story, each sensitively chosen color, composition, and line is arranged to create an intriguing visual poem.

The interiors of tonalist paintings are generally elegant and sparsely decorated, tonally uniform, simplified and indistinct; the figures are usually presented alone in silent contemplation.  Landscapes are typically luscious and luminous with evocative atmospheric effects featuring misty backgrounds illuminated by moonlight. Tonalists painters were drawn to both the natural and spiritual realms. They sought to awaken the viewers consciousness by shrouding the subject in a misty indistinct veil of emotionalism. The palette is minimal, characterized by warm hues of brown, soft greens, gauzy yellows and muted grays. Preferred themes were evocative moonlight nights and poetic, vaporous landscapes. Tonalist painters seemed to favored unconscious states and psychological experiences over reality.

Principle Painters of Tonalism Movement

Ralph Albert Blakelock American, 1847-1919
Thomas Wilmer Dewing  American, 1851-1938]
Robert Swain Gifford American, 1840-1905
Alexander Thomas Harrison American, 1854 -1929
Lowell Birge Harrison American, 1854-1929
George Inness American, 1825-1894
John La Farge American, 1835-1910
Arthur Frank Mathews American, 1860-1945
John Francis Murphy American, 1853-1921
Albert Pinkham Ryder American, 1847-1917
 John Henry Twachtman American,1853-1902
Julian Alden Weir American,1852-1919
James Abbott McNeill Whistler American, 1843-1903

Key terms and phrase associated with the tonalist movement

obscured details, single-figure themes, the natural and spiritual domain, waking, unconscious states, sleep, dreams, death, aura, religious significance, emotionalism, emotionalists, pictorial space, compositional space, diffused light, incandescent glow, organic forms, artistic inspiration, illusionistic representation, luminous, transcendentalist, glowing, metaphysical, emotional expression, poetic, evocative

Tonalism from a conservator's point of view

Spanierman Gallery
Check out their "Online Sales & Exhibitions"

The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism

Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937): An American Tonalist Rediscovered

John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902)

Brian Mahieu Plein Air painting and THE MOOD OF COLOR

"James A. M. Whistler was largely responsible for the birth of the Tonalist Movement in American painting.  He used color “arrangements” and was very interested in subtle tonal variations of closely related colors.  Japanese art continued to have a profound influence on these artists, just as it did on the Impressionists.  Aestheticism reigned in these works.  John Henry Twachtman of New England combined both Whistler’s tonalism and Monet’s impressionist brushwork and palette to create haunting landscapes and, especially, snow scenes.  Some of Twacthman’s landscapes are so closely related in hue and tone that the imagery is barely discernible.  The physical and ethereal worlds truly seem to merge...

"...Though my work appears to be Impressionist, and indeed, it adheres closely to the doctrine of painting directly from Nature -- it is much more concerned with the mood of the landscape.  Sometimes I will use a highly keyed Impressionist palette when the mood of the landscape and the color of the day require it.  On other days I will use a Tonalist technique where one hue is mixed with every  color on the palette.  This creates a moody unity to the painting and allows one to focus more intently on the value (light and dark) structure of the painting rather than the spectral hues."


Read through the info below which I found on I've made the most important points purple. After the article you'll find my attempt to do a tonalist painting. And after that a list of links to modern tonalist painters. Another interesting article about tonalist painting.

Exhibition Preview: Whistler & His Followers, Mar 14 - Jun6, 2004, Detroit Inst. of Art

Tonalism and the "Nocturne"

Whistler's distinctive views of the river Thames in London were made from memory, in his studio, after time had softened his initial impression of the scene. To downplay the significance of subject matter, he gave the paintings a musical name: "nocturnes," after instrumental compositions with a dreamy, pensive mood. In Whistler's time, the Thames riverfront was considered an unattractive scene of industrial blight. Here, Whistler's foggy, dark veil transforms even an industrial scene into a poetic vision of London.

Raised in Detroit and having briefly pursued an art career in New York, Theodore Scott Dabo moved to France in 1905 where he painted this dreamlike view of trees clustered on a riverbank, reminiscent of Whistler's nocturnes. That autumn, in the exhibition at the Paris Salon, his tonal landscapes garnered praise from several French art critics, including one who went so far as to describe Dabo's work as "the realization of what Whistler attempted."

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, a nearly abstract painting of fireworks over London's Cremorne Gardens at night, was Whistler's most misunderstood work. He never intended for the painting to be a realistic depiction. Rather, like his other nocturnes, he wanted it to convey the atmosphere and an impression of the place. When the influential art critic John Ruskin derided the painting and its price of 200 guineas, accusing Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," Whistler sued him for libel. Whistler used the trial as a platform in defense of his ideas about art and eventually won the suit, but was awarded the equivalent of only a few pennies in damages. He later felt redeemed when an American collector bought the painting for 800 guineas, gloating that "the pot of paint flung in the face of the British public for two hundred guineas has sold for four pots of paint, and that Ruskin has lived to see it!"

Birge Harrison's view down Fifth Avenue toward St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City captures the atmosphere of a dark, rainy night in the city, one of Whistler's favorite themes. Working primarily in a narrow range of blues, Harrison punctuates his composition with warm orange accents that suggest the glare of electric light and, like the sparkling lights of Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold, charge the scene with urban energy.

Tonalism - a distinctive style of low-toned atmospheric landscape painting, developed a sizable following among American artists in the 1880s. This new generation of tonalist artists, most born after 1845, and many foreign trained in Paris and Munich, broke with the prevailing school of Hudson River artists and their large detailed panoramic views of the American scenes. Many streams of influences fed into the growing taste for a more intimate, poetic, and expressive style of landscape art, relying on soft-edged broadly painted tonalities to communicate emotion.

If European methodologies were important, so too were the visionary canvases of native talents like Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and Ralph Blakelock (1947-1919), who developed idiosyncratic styles and romantic subject matter (soon to be widely imitated) without recourse to foreign training. Initially influenced by French Barbizon painting by way of American exponents George Inness (1825-1894), William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), and John La Farge (1835-1910), American Tonalist painters tended to use a neutral palette of predominantly cool colors: green, blue, mauve, violet, and a delicate range of intervening grays, carefully modulated to produce a dominant tone. Preferred subjects were scenes of dawn or dusk, rising mist and moonlight in which the enveloping atmosphere is both palpable and evocative of poetic and meditative states.

Artists like John Twachtman (1853-1902) and Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916) employed techniques derived from European landscape art, especially artists of the Hague School the most prominent being Josef Israels and Anton Mauve), with their emphasis on domesticated landscapes bathed in silvery light. From French sources, especially Jules Bastien-LePage, American expatriates such as Birge Harrison (1854-1929), his brother the marine painter Alexander Harrison (1853-1930), and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) developed a love for natural atmospheric effects combined with strong draftsmanship, and the use of high horizons to bring dramatic focus to foreground features.

From English sources in the Aesthetic movement, especially James Whistler (1834-1903), an entire generation of American painters, learned formal compositional techniques and decorative strategies based upon a generalized hue (achieved by using a neutral ground on the canvas), and a fundamental belief that painting should express sentiment—yet not be sentimental, didactic, or emphasize narrative.

The technique of glazing, the layering of thin layers of pigment suspended in oil or varnish, came to play an important part in the Tonalist repertoire of effects. Light penetrating these thin washes of color to an undercoat of more solid color was reflected back to the surface, producing a jewel-like quality of scintillating, bewitching hues.

The smoky quality or sfumato, also achieved by such methods, was considered part of the Tonalist tradition of craftsmanship going back to sources in the Venetian Renaissance.

Thus a certain vibrancy of contour and blurring of forms came to characterize many Tonalist landscapes. Vibration of color, achieved by using warm undertones and cool overtones, was widely used and taught by tonalists such as Birge Harrison to a generation of painters at his Art Students League classes in Woodstock, New York, where he was an instructor beginning in 1897. In his widely influential book on landscape painting, Harrison stressed the heritage of English artists John Constable and John Crome, especially their use of  refraction, or the play of adjoining color masses—the “lost-edge” technique, which resulted in a general diffusion of tone and a luxurious, atmospheric quality.

Natural forms are dramatized, their edges blurred, patterns and decorative elements emphasized, enhancing the surface quality of the canvas.

A finely composed Tonalist painting reads compellingly and immediately when viewed at a distance: all parts contribute to the whole.

Harrison advised his students to strive for the “big vision—the power to see and to render the whole of a given scene, rather than to paint a still-life picture of its component parts; the power to give the essential and to suppress the unessential, the power to paint the atmosphere that surrounds the objects rather than the objects themselves; the power, in one word, to give the mood of a motive rather than the scientific statement of the trees and rocks and fields and mountains that make up the elements.”

In terms of Tonalist subject matter and vision, the landscapes of the pathbreaking indigenous artists Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919) and Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1919) were crucial in the development of a distinctly romantic, if not a spiritual or quasi-religious element. Mystery, dream, memory, and imagination are often espoused in their haunting, broadly painted canvases of dusk and moonlight.

In this regard, the works of the transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and especially Henry David Thoreau were very influential, authors familiar to many tonalist painters. George Inness (1825-1894) brought a distinctly religious enthusiasm to his late tonal works, inspired in part by the religious mysticism of the Swedish scientist-visionary, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and Ralph Blakelock frequented spiritualist circles where Swedenborg was esteemed.

George Inness was consumed by his exploration of the subjective mystery of nature in the everyday. He wrote eloquently of the importance to his art of the “civilized landscape,” rural scenes of human habitation that speak to memory and offer a glimpse into realms of the spirit.

Inness believed the artist’s central task was to elicit an emotion from the viewer. His late visionary landscapes encapsulate the underlying Tonalist strategy to produce an art expressive of mood, of insights into the human spirit by way of landscape—a painted transcription of the individual artist’s response to nature. These subtle and charming expressions were achieved, not by a detailed realistic rendering of a specific place—as Tonalist artists criticized both their Hudson River forbearers and Impressionist colleagues for doing—but by a synthesizing process in the studio in which the painter often worked from memory to manipulate light effects and simplify and harmonize compositional elements until obtaining an evocative whole. The goal was an overall decorative unity that was both pleasing to the eye and touched the soul.

Because Tonalist landscapes tended to be generalized places, as opposed to recognizable locations, they often lacked local associations and anecdotal subject matter, thus allowing greater scope for the imagination. As a result, these paintings resonate with aesthetic and spiritual overtones—redolent of a better time and place that appealed to patrons and critics weary of the growing clamor of urban life and the social and economic upheaval of rapid industrialization.

By the 1890s, Tonalism and Impressionism were recognized by critics and collectors, if not as competing styles, certainly as different aesthetics. Tonalism was fundamentally a landscape art: subdued, profound, and spiritual.

Impressionism also concentrated on landscape, but included more cosmopolitan and narrative subject matter—including the figure—and employed high-keyed colors and broken brushwork to capture scintillating sunlit effects.

The aesthetics of the two styles were not mutually exclusive and artists from both camps freely borrowed from one another. Thomas Dewing (1851-1938) is often included among the Impressionists because of his figurative subject matter, but is firmly in the Tonalist school, more a follower of Degas than Monet.

In 1901, the eclectic critic Sadikichi Hartmann, writing about the Tonalist artist Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) succinctly touched on the heart of the matter in terms of the artistic aspirations of the Tonalists.

"With works of art it should be very much as with human beings, they should possess a soul, an individuality, a certain something which cannot be materially grasped, but which produces in the sympathetic spectator feelings, similar to those the artist felt in his creative moments.”

By 1914, the Tonalist landscape was such an established fixture on the American art scene that the artists employing this style were referred to as a group or school, led by the landscape painter and teacher Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916). In an introduction to a book of Ranger’s lectures on art and Tonalism, Art-Talks with Ranger (1914), arts writer Ralcy Husted Bell wrote glowingly of Ranger and the movement he espoused.

"All those who are familiar with the finest examples of the Tonal School must be impressed with their sensuous swing and play of colour, which are wedded to such delightful designs and pleasing patterns that they neither seem like designs nor yet suggest patterns. So agreeably are all the parts connected, that they are seen only together: fused in a nice relation to the whole…These noble specimens disclose a mastery of the relations which assemble and unify all the components of a picture into a single broad harmony…Better than the votaries of any other school known to me, the Tonalist catches the laughter of shimmering light, and transmutes it into pictorial joy; he speaks admirably the old mother-tongue of cloud, tree, pool, and stone; he interprets the spring; he is summer’s scribe, page to the majesty of autumn, and priest to the whole round year. With a simple palette, and as if by magic, he expresses breadth, teasing transparency, mysterious distances, the illusion of luminosity—in a word, the drama of air, light, and colour. Taken all in all, his pictures challenge, please, and convince. As a last refinement, he permeates them with his own individuality, and thus may he be called a creator."

Tonalism as a movement and school of landscape painting lasted well into the 1920s and was a critical influence on artists of the Stieglitz Circle like John Marin (1870-1953) and Marsden Hartley (1872-1943), and later inspired modernists Milton Avery (1885-1965) and even Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) who drew on the romantic abstraction of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Today, contemporary artists such as Wolf Kahn (1927- ), Russell Chatham (1939- ), and April Gornic (1953- ) look back to the heritage of American Tonalism for inspiration in their work.

Written by David Adams Cleveland and excerpted from his exhibition catalogue essay in Intimate Landscapes, Charles Warren Eaton and the Tonalist Movement in American Art 1880 –1920, De Menil Gallery at Groton School, September 26 to December 14, 2004.

The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism
American Tonalism at Spanierman Gallery

Tonalism Reviews


Tonalist Efforts by Robert Bissett

Cascade Pond
9x12", Oil on canvas


Winter Twilight
Acrylic on canvas


Acrylic on panel

Most tonalist like to use oils, but this is acrylic. Rather than glazing, I used opaque paint and a scumbling/dry brush technique on a muslin wrapped panel. Muslin has a more interesting, irregular weave than canvas. I started with a well worn 1/2" China bristle from the hardware store and finished up with a #8 filbert also well worn.

It was painted in the studio but from memory not from a photo. There was a lapse of a couple weeks between soaking up the scene on location and getting it on canvas making this a hybrid plein air. I spent time with the photo on the computer cropping and adjusting the color, contrast, blurring, etc. which served to refresh my memory and try ideas. Then went in the studio and began to paint. I added the sun shinning through mist and was surprised to see the distant mountains weren't actually in the picture when checking the photo later. The water is not the same either. In a second session the photo was used to add details, accents and highlights.

A couple other tonalist style...

Acrylic on panel


Acrylic on panel


Acrylic on panel


Kayak at Dusk
Acrylic on canvas



Links of Interest

George Inness

Brent Cotton

Dennis Sheehan

Jacob Collins

Michael Workman

Russell Chatham

April Gornik

Nancy Bush

Wolf Kahn

N. C. Wyeth

Back to Top

More Painting Secrets:

The Secret of Values New
The Secret of Emotion

The Secret of Critiquing
The Secret of Composition

The Secret of Visual Idea
The Secret of Borrowing
The Secret of Tonalism 
The Secret of Style
The Secret of Maxfield Parrish

The Secret of Plein Air
The Secret of No Solvents
The Secret of Water Mixable Oils

The Secret of Thumbnails
The Secret of the Process
The Secret of Knife Painting


Help Support this site costs you nothing!

Bob's amazing Amazon Store

Books, Software, Apparel, Cameras
DVDs, Magazines, Supplies, Computers
These are my recommendations...
All for the artist in you!

Items personally selected by Robert Bissett

For a huge selection of
equipment & supplies
use this link,


Discount Art Supplies up to 70% off

ROBERT BISSETT - Recent Paintings
Purchase Paperback
Hardcover and PDF also available












BF Jr. Miss
Oil Acrylic
Italy Portfolio 1
Landscape Portfolio 1
Landscape Portfolio 2
Landscape Portfolio 3
Secret of Painting

Native American Portfolio 1
Native American Portfolio 2
Western Themes 1

 Body of work

Daily Painting Blog
Figurative Portfolio 1
Wild Life Portfolio 1
Still Life Portfolio 1

Digital Portfolio 1
Portrait Portfolio 1
Portrait Portfolio
About the Artist
Murals  Domes