The musings of a landscape painter, art teacher, and art history lover
Tonalism vs. Impressionism: Exploring the Differences Between Two Iconic Art Movements
Art is a reflection of the society in which it is created. The late 19th century saw the world undergoing significant changes, as industrialization and urbanization swept across Europe and America. Artists were no longer content with the traditional academic styles of the past, which emphasized idealized forms and historical themes. They were seeking new ways to express themselves and connect with the rapidly changing world around them. Two movements that emerged during this time were Tonalism and Impressionism. Each brought a unique approach to capturing the mood and atmosphere of their surroundings.
Tonalism was a style of painting that emerged in the United States in the late 19th century. It is characterized by muted, earthy tones and a focus on the atmospheric effects of light. Tonalist artists sought to capture the mood and feeling of a scene, rather than a realistic depiction of it. Tonalism was heavily influenced by the French Barbizon School, which emphasized the natural beauty of the countryside.
Characteristics of Tonalism
One of the defining characteristics of Tonalism is its use of color. Tonalist painters often used a limited color palette, focusing on muted tones of gray, green, and brown. This subdued use of color was intended to convey a sense of quiet contemplation and serenity, or spirituality, in contrast to the vibrant, bustling world of the city.
Tonalism was also influenced by the cultural and social context of the time. The United States was in the midst of a period of rapid industrialization, as factories and cities sprang up across the country. Many artists felt that the rapid pace of modern life was eroding traditional values and a connection to nature. They sought to create works of art that would encourage people to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the natural world.
Famous Tonalist Artists
One of the most famous Tonalist painters is James McNeill Whistler, whose nocturnes (night scenes) are among the most iconic works of the movement. Whistler's use of subtle color and delicate brushwork captured the beauty and stillness of the night, creating a sense of quiet contemplation in the viewer. Another famous Tonalist painter is George Inness, whose landscapes often conveyed a sense of spiritual transcendence. Inness used light and color to create a sense of harmony and unity in his paintings, inviting the viewer to contemplate the beauty of the natural world.
Impressionism, on the other hand, emerged in France during the same period. Impressionist artists sought to capture the fleeting effects of light and color in a scene, using loose brushstrokes and bright colors to create a sense of movement and atmosphere. Impressionism was a reaction against the rigid academic traditions of the time and emphasized individual expression and spontaneity.
Characteristics of Impressionism
Unlike Tonalism, Impressionism is known for its use of broken color and bright, vibrant colors. Impressionist painters often used pure, unmixed colors straight from the tube, creating a sense of immediacy and vitality in their paintings. Impressionist artists were interested in capturing the effects of light and color in the natural world, and used color to convey a sense of movement and life in their work.
Impressionism was also influenced by the social and cultural context of the time. Paris was undergoing significant changes, as the city was transformed by modernization and urbanization. Impressionist artists sought to capture the energy and vitality of this new world, emphasizing the fleeting nature of modern life.
In Impressionist painting, broken color refers to the technique of applying small brushstrokes of contrasting colors side by side, rather than blending them together, to create the illusion of form and color. This technique is also known as "optical color mixing."
Broken color was a departure from the traditional academic approach of smoothly blended colors used in earlier painting styles. It aimed to capture the fleeting and atmospheric qualities of light and color in the moment, rather than creating a highly detailed and realistic representation. The broken color technique was a hallmark of Impressionist painting and played a significant role in the development of modern art.
Famous Impressionist Artists
Perhaps the most famous Impressionist painter is Claude Monet, whose water lilies and other outdoor scenes are instantly recognizable. Monet's use of bright, vibrant color and loose, broken brushstrokes captured the dynamic effects of light and color in nature, creating a sense of movement and life in his paintings. Another notable Impressionist is Edgar Degas, whose paintings of dancers and other urban scenes conveyed the energy and excitement of modern life. Degas' use of color and light conveyed a sense of movement and immediacy, bringing the viewer into the scene and capturing the essence of modern life.
In conclusion, Tonalism and Impressionism were two influential art movements that emerged in the late 19th century, each with its unique approach to capturing the mood and atmosphere of the changing world. While Tonalism emphasized muted tones and a focus on the atmospheric effects of light to convey a sense of quiet contemplation and serenity, Impressionism used bright, vibrant colors and loose brushstrokes to capture the dynamic effects of light and color in nature and modern life. By exploring these two movements, aspiring artists can learn valuable techniques for expressing their own vision of the world around them.
A Side by Side Comparison for Discussion
Here are examples of an Impressionist painting by Henry Twachtman adjacent to a Tonalist painting by Albert Pinkham. Discuss What they have in common as well as the difference you see in the coloration and overall mood.
One of My Own Paintings
Here is one of my paintings, titled 'Camelback Mountain at Dusk, 2022.' I find it difficult to categorize as purely Impressionistic or related solely to Tonalism, as it seems to embody elements of both styles. The freedom of color from form, a hallmark of Impressionism, has greatly influenced my artistic approach. However, as a contemporary landscape painter, I also strive to convey a sense of drama, isolation, and spirituality in my work, which aligns with the principles of Tonalism. In fact, much of the current landscape art I observe seems to be a fusion of both Impressionism and Tonalism, marrying their unique qualities.
Art Teachers: Discussion Questions
So, which one do you like the best: Tonalism or Impressionism? Please send me your comments. I would love to post them.
You may also like this article: 30 Most Famous Works of Art Everyone Should Know.
Title Images Left: Ryder, Albert Pinkham. "With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow." (1880) Smithsonian American Art Museum. Right: Monet, "Les bateaux rouges." (1875) Harvard
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Author: Bruce Black
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