James Whistler, Whistler’s Mother

TONALISM is a painting movement that is still popular today.

Originally, it was derived from the French Barbizon movement which emphasized atmosphere and shadow and harmonized nature with man – all this was done on location directly from nature.

The tonalists did not like to be defined by any particular art movement. But, when pressed on this issue, the early tonalists most often used the term Luminism to refer to their approach toward painting.

Their view on the landscape was similar but differed from the Luminists a bit.

For example:

  • Tonalists did outdoor color studies and then completed the paintings indoors.
  • Tonalist painting expressed a sense of unity over diversity, tranquility over activity and spirituality over physical.
  • Tonalists preferred to convey a feeling for the passage of time.
  • Tonalists used more brushwork than the Luminists.

It was not until 1972 when art historian, Wanda Corn in her catalog, “The Color of Mood: American Tonalism, 1880-1910,” coined the movement as Tonalism. I am personally drawn to this style of landscape painting.

George Innes, Morning

The Wikipedia definition explains:

This style of painting (about 1880 to 1915) is an artistic style that emerged in the 1880s when American artists began to paint landscape forms with an overall tone of colored atmosphere or mist. Dark, neutral hues, such as gray, brown, or blue, would usually dominate such compositions. During the late 1890s American art critics began to use the term “tonal” to describe these works. Two of the leading painters associated with this style are George Inness and James McNeill Whistler. Tonalism is also sometimes used to describe American landscapes derived from the French Barbizon style, which employs an emphasis on mood and shadow. Tonalism, in both its forms, was eclipsed by the popularity of Impressionism and European modernism.

©2022 Lori McNee, Let it Snow!

Characteristics of Tonalism:

  • poetic
  • an elegant landscape (sometimes with a lone figure)
  • a contemplative person
  • sparsely decorated
  • tonally uniform
  • luscious and luminous
  • atmospheric effects
  • simplified subject matter
  • misty, vaporous
  • evocative moonlit night
  • quiet and minimal
  • warm hues of brown, green, gauzy yellow, and muted grays
  • evoke a sense of emotionalism over reality
  • subjective interpretation of nature.


(Summer Light by Lori McNee)

Tonalist painting began on the east coast, but in the late 1890’s it moved out west to Northern California. California boasted a strong arts community and academy of art with high standards and connections to Europe and other American art centers. These tonal paintings were a perfect aesthetic fit with the Arts and Crafts movement and the Craftsman-style bungalows of the period.

Today tonalist paintings continue in popularity for their muted colors and soft contours that evoke a quiet contemplative mood that is easy on the eye and soul.

Check out these related articles:
The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting
What is Luminism in Painting?

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