2: Aesthetic Tonalism and Expressive Tonalism
As has been demonstrated in the first edition of A History of American Tonalism, the Tonalists movement evolved from an early style, circa 1880, of small scale landscapes, Aesthetic Tonalism, characterized by formal design and paint handling that is refined and nuanced, quiet and intimate in visual effect; to a later style of Expressive Tonalism, circa 1900, where the use of expressive brushstrokes on larger and larger canvases become commonplace, as modernist tendencies to display freewheeling paint handling took hold in America, if not throughout the international art world. Aesthetic Tonalism with its emphasis on balanced design, subtle patterning, and a kind of otherworldly equipoise came directly out of the Aesthetic movement and the work and artistic philosophy of art for art’s sake promoted by its greatest exponent, James McNeil Whistler, whose small scale exquisitely executed non-narrative etchings, pastels, and oils, embodied this artistic credo. By 1880, Whistler was all the rage in American progressive art circles. Whistler’s followers embraced Asian art, especially wood block prints with their emphasis on flat formal design, repeating patterns, and low-toned abstraction of organic shapes. William Anderson Coffin’s, Sunset Trees, c. 1890 is a classic example of this intimate, low-toned, and exquisite landscape mode of the 1880s and 90s; the subdued light of dusk exaggerates the barebones forms of the landscape, an artificial pattern that has been deliberately arranged by Coffin to allow the eye to wander in zig-zags from the foreground throughout the landscape, and even into the cloud-streaked sky, where the diagonal grids are echoed ad infinitum. Balance, equipoise, and sensuous form make the work an eye-catching window into some super-sensible world.