What is Tonalism in art – a simple explanation with examples

Tonalism is an American art movement that began in the late 1800s. The artists who belonged to this movement were interested in exploring the use of tone and color to create mood and atmosphere.

Unlike other movements such as realism or impressionism, tonalism did not focus on depicting reality accurately. Instead, the artists of this movement chose to focus on painting in shades of just one color with different values and intensities.

What does that mean? What’s the difference between shades, values, and intensities? This means that tonal artists used tones of one color from light to dark without adding other colors. They also changed the intensity of the tone, which is a fancy way of saying they made it lighter or darker.

They created incredibly atmospheric pieces by using just shades and values.

By Value, we mean how light or dark a color is.

By Intensity, we mean how bright or dull the color is.

By Shade, we mean how much black or white is mixed into the color.

361px Whistler Nocturne in black and gold
J. Whistler – Nocturne in black and gold

How do you describe a Tonalist painting?

Tonalist paintings look very similar to Impressionist style paintings but the difference is that Tonalists used less color and more shades and values to create a mood or feeling. Tonalist paintings are also less vibrant than Impressionist paintings and they focus on mood rather than color.

Where Impressionist paintings awaken the viewer to the vibrancy of color, Tonalist art depicts a more dream-like state. Like the blurring of a dream just before one awakens.

Tonalist paintings are primarily a single color palette with different tones and values of that color. The subject matter is usually landscapes, cityscapes, or portraits.

Tonalist paintings vary in the detail that is included. Some paintings are very detailed with a lot of intricate brushstrokes, while others are more simplistic and use broad strokes to create an overall mood or feeling but are hardly ever used to tell a story.

Tonalists work in a very tonally neutral palette, using simple brush strokes and sparse color. The figures are generally depicted alone in introspective silence, with the art being visually simple, tonally uniform, simplified, and indistinct.

Lighting used in Tonalist art is generally low-key, with shadows being softer and more diffused. This gives a very even light across the painting.

In order to activate the image, highlights are often used sparingly, such as on reflective objects or in the eyes of a figure. Some artists will use very high contrast techniques but maintain a dark mood overall.

The Tonalist art style was popular from the 1880s to the early 1900s.

Some famous Tonalist painters are James McNeill Whistler, Albert Ryder, and my personal favorite, George Inness during his Tonalist period.

How did Tonalism come about?

Tonalism was derived from the Barbizon school in France, which emphasized mood and shadow, which rejected the bright and highly saturated colors of Impressionism.

Realists felt that Impressionism was too light and airy and lacked substance. They believed in painting what you see, capturing a moment in time as realistically as possible.

Tonalist painters took this one step further by rejecting the use of pure, bright colors altogether. They felt that the use of color could be quite overpowering and draw attention away from the painting’s subject matter.

Instead, Tonalist painters opted for soft, muted colors that would create a moodier and more atmospheric effect. And so, Tonalism was born.

Who were some of the artists who practiced the Tonalist style?

Some of the most famous Tonalist painters include James McNeill Whistler and the early works of Edward Hopper. Each of these artists developed their own unique style, but they all shared a common interest in evoking a sense of mood and atmosphere through their paintings.

There are more artists also known for their use of or one-time affiliation with the Tonalist style, they are:

  • Albert Pinkham Ryder 
640px Albert Pinkham Ryder Seascape 1956.158 Dallas Museum of Art
Albert Pinkham Ryder – Seascape – 1956
  • Alexander Thomas Harrison
  • Arthur Frank Mathews 
The Grape The Wine Maker by Arthur Frank Mathews 1
The Grape (The Wine Maker) by Arthur Frank Mathews
  • Edward Hopper
  • George Inness
  • James Abbott McNeill Whistler 
361px Whistler Nocturne in black and gold
Whistler-Nocturne in black and gold
  • John Francis Murphy 
  • John Henry Twachtman 
256px Snow by John Henry Twachtman c. 1895 6
‘Snow’ by John Henry Twachtman, c. 1895-6
  • John La Farge
  • Julian Alden Weir 
  • Lowell Birge Harrison 
  • Ralph Albert Blakelock 
Ralph Albert Blakelock The Canoe Builders 1909.7.4 Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ralph Albert Blakelock – The Canoe Builders – 1909
  • Robert Swain Gifford 
  • Thomas Wilmer Dewing 

Why was Tonalism in art so popular at the time, and what does it mean to us today?

Tonalism in art was popular at the time because it offered a new way of seeing and experiencing the world. The paintings created a mood or feeling that the viewer could connect with, and this was something that people were looking for in art.

Tonalism is still popular today because it offers a unique perspective on the world.

Tonalism even expanded to Australia where it took hold in the early 20th century in Melbourne.

Clarice Beckett Wet Night Brighton
Australian Tonalist painting – Clarice BeckettWet Night, Brighton, 1930

Is Tonalism the same as Impressionism?

Contrary to what you might have been taught, Tonalism is not the same thing as impressionism. The two styles don’t even share a lot in common. Impressionism was a style of art that emerged around the mid-19th century and focused on creating light effects by showing visible brush strokes.

In fact, there is a significant difference between the two styles because tonalism focuses on color and shadows while impressionism focuses on light effects and variety in colors.

Is Tonalism the same as Luminism?

Luminism is a style of painting that was popular in the mid-19th century. Luminism is focused on capturing the effects of light, which gives the paintings an ethereal, otherworldly feeling.

While tonalism and luminism do share some similarities, they are not the same thing. Tonalism focuses on color, tone (obviously), and mood.

An example of Luminism by Sdaluz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As I am colorblind I feel an affinity to Tonalism as color plays a lesser role in my own artworks. It is a style 100% suited to me. I do think Tonalism is a cool style that should be explored further.








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