Montclair Art Museum

Montclair, NJ



American Tonalism: Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Montclair Art Museum


The Montclair Art Museum will present the exhibition, American Tonalism: Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Montclair Art Museum September 19, 1999 through January 2, 2000. Capturing the art phenomenon that swept American artists' studios from the 1880s to the 1910, the exhibition will include Tonalist works by George Inness, James McNeill Whistler, Thomas W. Dewing, J. Alden Weir, Ralph Albert Blakelock, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henry Ward Ranger.

American Tonalism will present more than 60 paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs by famous American artists including an important group of American Tonalist works from The Montclair Art Museum's Permanent Collection. The MAM exhibition will augment a previous show held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1997. The exhibition is organized by Kevin J. Avery, Ph.D., Associate Curator, American Paintings and Sculpture, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Diane P. Fischer, Ph. D., Associate Curator, The Montclair Art Museum. (left: Arthur B. Davies, Parting at Evening, 1897, Oil on canvas, 12-1/4 x 15 inches, The Montclair Art Museum, Gift of Phoebe C. Macbeth in Memory of Robert W. Macbeth, 1973.13)

Tonalism, an artistic form popular from the 1880's to the early 1900's, was a phenomenon more than a movement in American art, a convergence of styles occurring in the 1880s and acquiring a name in the mid-1890's. It was chiefly manifested in landscapes executed with soft painterly application and muted color harmonies.

Tonalism had two major branches; the American followers of the French Barbizon school, including George Inness and his disciples -- and Aestheticism, exemplified by the works of the American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Tonalists tended to follow one style or the other, or combined features of both. Some Tonalist works were also influenced by Symbolism, the French literary and artistic movement that favored imaginary and psychological experiences over reality. With its European roots, Tonalism seemed sophisticated to post-Civil War Americans eager to demonstrate that they had "taste." However, Tonalism was regarded as a truly American tendency, and was seen as being patriotic.

Tonalism was identified long after many of its representatives had established themselves. Indeed, it was following the death of George Inness in 1894 that Tonalism assumed a voice, in the landscape painter Henry Ward Ranger. Ranger's insistence on 'tone' in painting was essentially an antimodernist defense of the Western painting traditions. With its darkish palette, Tonalism countered the high-keyed expression of sunlight and shade in French Impressionism. Tonalism was, in short, one of the swan songs of nineteenth-century American academicism. Yet, paradoxically, it was also assimilated by progressive American Impressionists, and -- with its often-ambiguous forms and subjects -- even anticipated abstraction.

The understated color in most Tonalist art, or its complete absence, as well as its preternatural evocations, appealed to turn-of-the-century photographers seeking to assert the legitimacy of that medium as a serious art form which could transcend the mere documentation of reality. The soft-focused prints of the Pictorial school of American photographers, like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence White, liberally incorporated the aesthetics of the Tonalist painters. Works from these photographers will be included in MAM's American Tonalism exhibition.

In their early years, both The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Montclair Art Museum benefited from generous gifts of Tonalist paintings from devoted collectors. George A. Heam was one of the early principal donors of both art and funds to MMA, and William T. Evans, one of the founders of The Montclair Art Museum, donated 54 paintings as the nucleus of the MAM collection. The year 2000 is an apt time to mark the centennial of the Tonalist phenomenon as well as the generosity of great patrons essential to the growth of both institutions.

To accompany the exhibition, The Montclair Art Museum will publish a fully illustrated catalogue, which will include essays by Kevin J. Avery and Diane P. Fischer.

The American Tonalism exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of the Frank and Katherine Martucci Endowment for the Arts. Funding for all of The Montclair Art Museum's programs is made possible, in part, by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, PNC Bank, and MAM members.

Read more about the Montclair Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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