But despite being rooted in transcendental yearnings, the style was also deeply connected to its social and political context. While its calming, meditative natural scenes certainly offered an antidote to the trauma of Civil War, they also embodied nostalgia for a bygone world: the formerly “undiscovered” frontier, now overtaken by industry and smog-glutted cities. In the catalogue for “Color of Mood,” a 1972 exhibition widely credited with reintroducing Tonalism to a broad audience, art historian Wanda Corn connected Tonalist work with a sense of loss—“a pervasive though understated melancholy that these artists felt as their familiar world succumbed to alien and mechanical forces.”
The popularity of Tonalist work reached its peak by 1900, pointing to a widespread longing for untouched landscapes. On one hand, this connected to both the rise of conservation efforts and resistance to increasingly unhealthy, crowded living conditions in urban centers. On another, as Valence points out, it bolstered the tendency to ignore—even erase, as she argues—the genocide of America’s Indigenous population. Some Tonalist painters, like Blakelock, whitewashed this reality by lacing moonlit scenes with Indigenous figures shown at peace and at rest. Today, these pictures can read as an uncomfortable rewriting of history that allowed the predominantly white, turn-of-the-century Tonalist viewership to “heal” without facing the harm they’d caused.