Twilight and Reverie: California Tonalist Painting 1890-1930

by Harvey L. Jones


In the early I890s California made the transition from a frontier mentality to a rapidly developing cultural consciousness. The benefits of new technologies--electrification, automobiles, highways, telephones, and innumerable mechanical devices -- fostered growth in industry, agriculture, and transportation that produced social, political, and economic changes throughout the state. California boasted a strong educational system and, in Northern California, a substantial arts community. In San Francisco artists had their own academy of art with high, professional standards and strong connections to European and other American art centers. This sophisticated community embraced the ideology of the international arts and crafts movement to create a regional identity within the style, in architecture, furniture, art pottery, and metalwork. With design inspiration drawn from the diversity of nature and handcrafted in native materials, the works were often executed in colors and textures reminiscent of the California landscape. The so-called fine art of painting also found an audience among devotees of the arts-and-crafts ethos. What is here defined as the Tonalist aesthetic in painting was a perfect tit with the Craftsman-style bungalows of the period, with their intimate, poetic, and reductive interiors.

Artists active in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Monterey/Carmel embraced an aesthetics of a subjective interpretation of nature rendered in muted colors and soft contours that evoked a quiet, contemplative mood. It was a challenging vanguard approach to painting that not only superseded the popularity of descriptive realism but one by which most of those artists also rejected the tenets of Impressionist-inspired plein-air painting, with its more objective representations of nature, championed by painters in Southern California. Although there was some crossover between these two dominant painting styles, the partisans were generally divided along north-south lines.

Northern California provided two crucial regional ingredients. First was the artistic influences of two major American painters, George Inness and James McNeill Whistler, conveyed through the art and teachings of two of the San Francisco Bay Area's leading artists at the end of the nineteenth century, William Keith and Arthur Mathews. Second, the prevailing atmospheric conditions that produce the fog and haze characteristic of the Northern California coast around the bay and Monterey/Carmel were a picturesque inspiration for the poetic landscapes in the Tonalist style.

The artists we now identify as Tonalists did not themselves use this term to describe their distinctive approach to art. Although they, like most artists today, preferred not to be associated with or defined by any particular art movement or to be art historically labeled with an "ism," they most often used the term Luminist to refer to their particular approach to picture making.

Today the term Luminist generally refers to an earlier generation of landscape painters in the nineteenth century, who painted scenes along the Hudson River and the eastern seaboard. Both the Tonalists and the American Luminists evinced a common interest in the pictorial effects to be found in the interaction of sky, water, and landscape. Often the most reductive or visually economic means to depict nature's elements were enough to interest the artists and to engage the viewer's imagination. A simple unbroken horizon line conveyed a feeling of repose or tranquility to a scene that was further enhanced by a low-key color harmony along with diffused and diminished lighting effects. These three characteristics are essential to Tonalist painting.

The American Luminists, a group that included such well-known painters as John F. Kensett (1816-1872), Frederic E. Church (1826-1900), Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), and Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), were not intending merely to illustrate nature's radiant lighting effects but were disposed toward a more subjective interpretation that symbolized a profound spiritual meaning. William Keith's words could apply to this earlier generation: "What a landscape painter wants to render is not the natural landscape, but the state of feeling which the landscape produces in himself." Notions of transcendence, timelessness, and tranquility were evoked in Luminist paintings, in which an almost invisible brushstroke virtually removed the onlookers' awareness of the hand of the artist that produced the painting. This visual and psychological distance served to enhance the scenic illusion beyond the picture plane. Like the Luminists, the Tonalists sought a transcendental sense of place and time. They preferred to paint scenes that conveyed a feeling for the passage of time, such as twilight, the transition from day to night. The Tonalists' paintings further expressed a sense of unity over diversity, of tranquility and repose over activity, and, ultimately, the spiritual over the physical.

The term Tonalism is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon of stylistic "isms" applied to the history of painting. The terms tonal and tonality are familiar in the study of music, where they refer to the relationship of the individual notes to the keynote. It was James McNeill Whistler who applied musical terminology to visual art by titling his paintings Harmonies, Nocturnes, or Symphonies. In his famous essay "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies," Whistler wrote: "As music is the poetry of sound so is painting the poetry of sight." In visual art the word tonal has long been used to describe the subtle nuances of color gradation within a relatively narrow range of spectrum hues. To be considered "tonal" the general color scheme of a painting must be of a dominant hue (or key) with each subordinate hue in the composition harmonized by mixing it with a tinge of the dominant hue. This results in reducing the intensity of any contrasting hues, which lends unity to the color scheme--often in an overall gray or brown tonality.

The American painter Henry Ward Ranger (1859-19I6) was the leader of a school of landscape painting to which he applied the name tonal, when the group exhibited in New York at the Lotos Club in 1891. However, it was the art historian Wanda Corn, in her seminal catalogue essay of 1972, "The Color of Mood: American Tonalism, I880-I910," who established the term to identify the general movement. "As tonalism has been defined, it was a style of intimacy and expressiveness, interpreting very specific themes in limited color scales and employing delicate effects of light to create vague, suggestive moods."

In the late nineteenth century, California's painters, along with American artists in the east, traveled to Europe in great numbers to study at the major art academies in Munich, Rome, and, most important, Paris. While many painters received their formal training in the official academies, they were also exposed to the work of the painters known as the Barbizon school who, earlier in the century, had deserted the French Beaux-Arts tradition of painting classical, religious, or historical subjects in favor of simple landscapes and humble peasant scenes. Barbizon, a small village at the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau outside Paris, was the focus of activity of a group that included Camille Corot,Thiodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, Jules Dupré, and Narcisse Diaz, to name a few. These artists took their canvases outdoors and painted directly from nature. Landscape painting and modest pastoral scenes of this kind were considered unworthy subjects for serious art in the academic canon.

The Tonalist painters were also keen observers of nature, in all its subtle manifestations of light, color, and form, although they did not usually record a scene from direct observation out-of-doors. It was not uncommon for Tonalist painters to prepare quick sketches or make color notes out-of-doors for reference at a later time, but the painting itself was executed in the studio from a synthesis of remembered scenes, moods, and these preliminary sketches. The Tonalists rejected the mere representation of fact and suppressed descriptive detail. The artists sometimes reworked areas of a painting, glazing portions with translucent layers of pigment to soften contours and render indistinct any object that could be consolidated in the subjective perception of the observer.

Barbizon painting, which reflected the ideas of naturalism prevalent at the time in literature and philosophy, struck a sympathetic chord with Americans. The Barbizon artists' relocation from the cities to the forest was symbolic of a belief that man's proper role was to be found by living in harmony with nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau expressed the sentiment in their writings. In Emerson's famous essay "Nature" he wrote: "The noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apportion of God. It is the organ through which the universal spirit speaks to lead back the individual to it." Thoreau's Walden remains a classic document of environmental naturalism. In California the renowned writer-naturalist John Muir, a founder of the Sierra Club, inspired the conservation movement shortly after the closing of the American frontier. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, life on the frontier as depicted by the wilderness painters of the west was vanishing. The growth of urban centers throughout California encroached on the unspoiled lands, affecting the natural character of lands, forests, rivers, and streams. The rise of industrialization, the rapid growth of agriculture, and the development of overland transportation systems left their considerable mark on the land in the name of "progress," popularly justified as the "manifest destiny" of America. This cynical view of the growth of California was lamented by many of its artists who shared John Muir's concerns but abandoned their spectacular panoramic depiction of nature in favor of more intimate views of somewhat idealized evocations of nature in harmony with man. There was a genuine identification with the Barbizon school by American painters, especially those California-based artists who followed the great early painters of western scenic panoramas such as Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Thomas Hill (1829-1908), and William Keith. Keith, who was a longtime friend of Muir, said in a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley in 1888: "When I began to paint, I couldn't get mountains high enough nor sunsets gorgeous enough for my brush and colors. After a considerable number of years' experience, I am contented with very slight material,-- a clump of trees, a hillside and sky. I find these hard enough, and varied enough to express any feeling I may have about them." These domesticated landscapes with cattle or sheep grazing on hillsides, farmers in their fields, rustic village scenes, and figures in a wooded glen are reminiscent of the pictures celebrating peasant life by French Barbizon painters like Théodore Rousseau or Jean-François Millet.

But it was the paintings of another American artist, George Inness, that were a major influence on the California Tonalists. Inness, whose earlier mid-nineteenth-century landscapes celebrated the grandeur of nature's vistas with the descriptive realism of the Hudson River school of painters, found a sympathetic connection with the Barbizon artists that resulted in a change of style for his late works, painted from about I884 until his death, ten years later.

Before his visit to California in 1891, Inness had already attracted a number of California admirers to his mature painting style with a painting exhibited in 1884 at the Mechanics' Institute Fair in San Francisco, the most notable of whom was William Keith. It is well documented that Keith was host to George Inness in 1891 when they painted together in Keith's San Francisco studio and traveled together on sketching tours that included trips to Yosemite and the Monterey Peninsula. Keith and Inness also shared an interest in the religious philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, whose metaphysical and mystical writings on the all-pervading immanence of God in the essence of the visual world struck a harmonious chord with the artists' own mysticism. Inness's visit to San Francisco is said to have revitalized Keith's flagging enthusiasm and refined his artistic theories. According to Brother Cornelius, Keith's biographer, Inness directly intervened in the execution of Keith's Forest Interior, already completed in Keith's then characteristic "snuff brown" tones. "What's the matter with it?" Keith asked. "Blast it open!" Inness replied, and began to paint over the dark center area of the landscape to create an expanse of brightly lit sky. "Keith's style broadened considerably under the Easterner's influence, with his subsequent paintings becoming extremely tonal. 'I am learning ever so much from him,' he wrote about Inness. 'I have painted too solidly, laying on heavy material and so my pictures lack color and are black and white. I must paint more thinly and transparently. That makes color and the middle tones.'" Inness's strongest influence on Keith was urging him toward a more explicit use of formats evocative of the Barbizon school. "From this period on, Keith's paintings frequently conjure up the names of Rousseau and Diaz--to a greater extent than they do that of Inness."

Part of Inness's appeal was his insistence on the primacy of individual emotion and response. Inness was quoted as saying, "A work of art does not appeal to the intellect -- it does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion.... Its real greatness consists in the duality and force of this emotion." According to the artist: "The arrangement of colours must be kept in harmony because it must reproduce not merely the facts of the landscape, either separately or in mass, but, rather, the effect of the scene upon the painter's feelings, the emotion it evokes. Not alone the grass and the trees, with whatever delicate recognition of gradation of colour, but the mood, of which they are the embodiment and cause, it is to be transferred to the canvas." Arthur Atkins put this thought in other words: "There is no need for realism in painting beyond a genuine impulse received from Nature: colour and drawing one has entire liberty to subject to the one end of expression. . . . What makes a great painting is not brilliancy of handling, or the complete rendering of surfaces, but the seizing and holding of some element of that divine beauty which all things possess in some degree. And the mark of any great work of art."

Inness's major contributions to California Tonalist painting are found in the modesty of his subject matter and a subdued color palette that synthesizes visual truth and poetic mood. As Keith explained: "An artist ought to go to nature as a poet goes, selecting and combining in order to make his impression the stronger. If he finds lines or colors in the landscape which interfere, he subordinates them, and exaggerates everything that tends to the unity of the whole." The Tonalist painters in the regions beyond California derived their colors from nature's palette for fall and winter--favoring the burnished golds and rusty browns of autumn leaves over the bright green foliage of summer, as they also preferred the blue-gray skies and umber earth tones of winter over the varicolored hues of springtime. In California, where the change of seasons is not so clearly discerned, the landscape along the Pacific coast contributes its own distinctive colors to the Tonalist palette. The faded greens and tawny ochers of the grassy hillsides in late summer, along with the gray-green foliage of eucalyptus, live oak, and olive trees, blend their muted tones with the pearly grays of marine mists and fogs at early morning and late afternoon.

An interest in muted colors was matched by a seeking out of specific times of day that created unique lighting effects. Gottardo Piazzoni took special interest in full moonrises, the viewing of which became a family ritual. Venturing up a hill, the family would cheer the appearance of the moon. Piazzoni knew the exact time for each moonrise and kept precise records of them. He also liked sunsets and found particular interest in their afterglow.

California which is famous for nothing so much as its sunshine, has been depicted throughout the greater part of its history in terms of twilight, darkness and mute, somber atmosphere. Piazzoni followed this tradition, but with a greater richness of painter-craft than most and with greater simplicity in composition. He liked big, bulky horizontal forms of hills and ranges, with a stripe of water at the bottom of the painting to emphasize its horizontality. He was never fussy about "correctness" in perspective, but he was not an abstract painter in any sense of the term; he was a mild mystic, a gentle, amiable representative of that current in American art which found its greatest expression in Albert Ryder.
In some ways Piazzoni is most "modern" in his murals.... He clearly believed that the motif depicted in a mural should be stylized toward the rectilinear shapes of architecture, and that the color--he used quiet grays, blues and tans--should lie flat on the wall.

Arthur Atkins shared this interest in sunsets and their effects on lighting.

[A]nd as the sun slowly sinks, all changes. The landscape sings with colour, as a gem: the distant hills are suffused with purple and gold: their careworn look of noon vanishes, and in its place, great solemnness and contentment--broad lights and noble shadow. The grass, almost golden, holding still a lingering note of green, blazes now in the rich light: here and there long shadows steal over it, giving peace. The trees, rejoicing in a wealth of colour, are of green with gold in the green and a broken vibrant violet in the shadows, and opulent gold upon trunks and branches.
The great quiet landscape smiles, and I, coming wearily home over the hill, conscious of my own littleness (though doubtless beautiful, too, in the coloured light), smile and thank God fervently, that He did not make the landscape gray.

Following San Francisco's great earthquake and fire in 1906, Keith, along with many other artists, lost not only most of his work but also a prestigious place to exhibit and sell his paintings. In 1907 a group of San Francisco leading artists entered into an arrangement with the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California, to convert the ballroom into a gallery maintained by the hotel. Present at the first meeting were William Keith, Xavier Martinez, Arthur Mathews, Eugen Neuhaus, Charles Rollo Peters, Gottardo Piazzoni, and Will Sparks, all of whom are now identified as Tonalist painters. The existence of the Del Monte Art Gallery provided a beneficial arrangement for all artists concerned and a major impetus for the growth of the Monterey Peninsula art colony.

The Monterey Peninsula provided such picturesque subjects as wind-blown cypress trees, sturdy live oaks, tall deep green pines, a rocky coastline with crashing waves, a crescent bay of blue-green hue bordered by gray sand dunes, and the softly contoured green to golden brown hills of Carmel Valley. Add to this the romantic ruins of old adobes and the historic Spanish missions veiled in the atmospheric fogs and mists of this coastal region, and nature's inspiration for California Tonalist landscapes becomes obvious.

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