American Tonalism


Tonalism is an American progressive art movement that developed in the 1880s out of an abiding spiritual feeling for the intimacies of the human landscape—often scenes at dawn or dusk of abandoned farms littered with stone walls and old orchards. A radically subjective and expressive landscape style in its heyday, Tonalism's name alludes to the use of muted natural tones in dramatically portraying the symbolic and abstract character of landscape forms. The transcendentalist sensibilities of John La Farge, George Inness, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler were key to the style’s development and wide popularity. Major Tonalists like Ralph Blakelock, Albert Pinkham Ryder, J. Francis Murphy, and Dwight Tryon took inspiration from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and translated the experience of nature into ambiguous, melancholic, or mysterious works, often echoing the trauma of the Civil War. Tonalism would influence major figures of modern American painting into the 20th century, including Milton Avery, the Color Field painters, and the circle of artists around Alfred Stieglitz.

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