Rhythm in Art


Tonalism was an art movement which originated in the USA during the 1870s. It mostly refers to landscapes which are hazy and atmospheric and colour palettes which are muted. The first recorded use of Tonalism was the art historian Wanda Corn in her catalogue The Colour of Mood: American Tonalism. The Tonalists believed by arranging colours and forms in their landscapes, their work could convey emotions and cosmic connections. The use of gentle colours and contours which were softly brushed influenced musicians and poets. As compared to the Luminists and Impressionists the Tonalists often chose cool palettes.

Key Facts

The movement gained ground during the period 1870 to 1915. It was mostly used in the United States. The rise of Australian Tonalism during 1900 can be attributed to the Barbizon School artists. The works of these artist were landscapes which were moody and atmospheric. The Tonalist artists did not create perfect works of art. They were devoid of stories and ideas. Tonalism was also influenced by music. Artists from this movement usually used musical terms to describe their work. For instance, the artist James McNeill Whistler named his work Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1. The main focus of Tonalism was works of landscapes but portraits were also included. The Tonalists used the effect of light from different sources like moonlight or dawn in their paintings. Many of the paintings in this style have a strong contrast between a dark foreground and a source of ambient light in the background. The Tonalist paintings were a source of inspiration to the Pictorialist photographers who wanted to develop photography as an artistic medium. These photographers used exposures and paintings in their work to simulate the atmospheric effects.

Characteristics which define Tonalism

The Tonalist paintings generally contain the following characteristics.

a) The atmosphere is moody and dramatic.

b) The brushwork is loose.

c) The rendering lacks detail especially, in the dark areas.

d) Colours are muted or dull.

e) The painting lacks any message or idea.

f) The paintings have a strong focus on nature.

g) The use of contrast between]n the light and dark areas to focus attention on the light in the painting.

Tonalism as an art style emerged in the 1880s. The American artists painted landscapes which had a tone of coloured atmosphere or mist. During the period from 1880 to 1915, the dark hues were predominately used by artists associated with this style. Two of the leading exponents of this style were the painters George Inness and James McNeill Whistler. The term Tonalism is often used to describe landscapes which are derived from the Barbizon style. This style emphasised the use of mood and shadow in the painting. Tonalism was later overshadowed by the Impression and European modernism. The Australian Tonalism movement started in Melbourne during the year 1910. The use of Tonalism in painting is popular even today. It derives its origin from the French Barbizon movement which made use of the atmosphere and shadow. It also advocated the use of harmony between man and nature. The artists who practised tonalism earlier often used the term Luminism to refer to this style.

Differences between Tonalism and Luminism

a) The artists following Tonalism usually made colour studies outdoor and then completed their work indoors.

b) The paintings by Tonalists had a feeling of unity over diversity and tranquillity over the activity.

c) Tonalists advocated the use of the brush more strongly as compared to the Luminists.

d) Tonalist paintings convey a feeling of time.