In the Tonalist Mood

Tonalism developed from two European springs: the French Barbizon School, by way of its American disciples, and Aestheticism. Practiced from the mid-19th century into the early 20th, it was less a coherent movement than a shared sensibility among Europhile American artists. Chief among these were George Inness and his followers and James McNeil Whistler, American expatriate and evangelist of tonal harmony. Whistler’s low-toned atmospheric arrangements, those ethereal nocturnes and harmonies, were a prime impetus behind the spread of a loose convergence of styles that did not even have a name until 1890s. (And still earns sparse mention in art survey textbooks.)

There are many gratifying surprises in this show, delicious work by names less familiar today than in their time. Kenyon Cox, one of the best known painters and art critics of his day, personified academic classicism with an American flavor. His “After the Harvest” (1888) is a poetic vista of a sloping field broken by the delicate mass of a low-growing tree. An Ohio Valley pastorale, it paraphrases Inness’ rejection of explicit detail in order to heighten suggestions of space and distance. The misted contours of Corot lie a generation behind it. Elliott Daingerfield’s prim little “Garden of Eden,” with its silly rabbit and distant classical ruin, illustrates the academic pitfalls Cox had the wit to evade in his landscapes.


Kenyon Cox, "After the Harvest" (1888)

Arthur Wesley Dow, deeply engaged by Asian aesthetics and the tenets of the Arts & Crafts movement, is wonderfully represented with two very different natural scenes. “Moon Through the Trees” (c. 1910) epitomizes the evocative power of subdued light on diffuse contours, that refined spatial ambiguity inherited from Aestheticism. It carries the warm, vespertine tones used earlier byThéodore Rousseau in scenes of Fontainebleau Forest. “Study for a Field Kerlaouen” (c. 1885), a much-reproduced Breton landscape, has the clarity and lively coloration of a motif begun in the open air. Both are so lovely it does not matter what tag is placed on them.


Arthur Wesley Dow, "Moon in the Trees" (1910)


In the Forest (1864) is a small jewel by John La Farge. An autumnal woodland scene, its luminous russets and ochres convey light with the richness of stained glass. The painter’s love of Delacroix shows in the intensity and depth of color. American museum-goers are familiar with his floral still lifes, evocative of Fantin-Latour. Here is reason to know his landscapes better.


John La Farge, "In the Forest" (1864)


Henry Prellwitz’s Swirling Clouds in the Moonlight (c. 1890s) typifies the splendid nocturnes that were his forté. This captivating view of a turbulent sky over Peconic Bay embodies the fluctuating Tonalist straddle—of nineteenth century academicism on one hand and modern motives on the other—tipping it decidedly toward the modern.


Henry Prellwitz, "Swirling Clouds in the Moonlight, Peconic" (1890s)


You cannot leave this exhibition without wanting to see more of John Francis Murphy, Leonard Ochtman, Arthur Hoeber, Charles Warren Eaton, George Fuller, Arthur Hoeber, Hugh Bolton Jones, and Birge Harrison. It is precisely the unselfconscious beauty and pictorial intelligence of these more under-recognized painters that makes the exhibition revelatory.

The mongrel character of Tonalism welcomes in its name almost any low-keyed landscape with indistinct forms. Even ones not so low-keyed, such as Terry DeLapp’s highly abstract Passing Storm (2004), slip in under the umbrella term. So does a pondscape by Wolf Kahn. Among the younger aspirants to Tonalist aims, Lisa Breslow earns her place here. Central Park No. 4 (2004) bows to the spirit, if not the pyrotechnics, of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold. (1874).  Leon Dabo is the one weak sister brother in the ensemble. His wan, ghostly Hudson River (1918) is still hanging in Spanierman’s closet. Dabo signed himself with a logo based on Whistler’s. The comparison does Dabo no good.

In the Tonalist Mood: Paintings from the 1860s to the Present at Spanierman Gallery, 45 East 58th Street, 212-832-0208.

This review appeared first in CityArts, January 26, 2011.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Where’s Ralph Blakelock? He was a terrific tonalist.

  2. Spanierman recycles the Tonalists every few years. Glad they do. How else would anyone get to know John Francis Murphy or Dow? Nice to see their names mentioned.

  3. I liked the Dabo piece. It is different than the other works but I think quite striking and more unique. There is more of a surreal dreamy quality to his work than in the others, but that certainly doesn’t make it less beautiful. I sure don’t get your beef with him.

  4. That’s what makes horse races, Hunter. Certainly, there is no science to this. And you are right, the Dabo piece[actually two pieces, the drawing and the painting] is what you call dreamy. For me, the sense of place is lost in the dream.

    But we don’t have to agree. Without some disagreement, there could be no conversation. And in the end, criticism arises out of conversation. It does not descend from theories. So, Hunter, your demurral is welcome.

  5. From the beginning, the focus of this blog has been on taste. On the freedom of it. And on the value of not being intimidated about stating one’s taste.

    I liked the Dabo drawing better than the painting. Not sure why. Maybe because that tree felt real; whereas the painting was a dreamscape, not a locale. Dreaming is easy. Depiction is harder.

  6. These are lovely pictures, as fresh today as they were a hundred years ago, without cliches or formulas. I always like to go back to this period, where there is so much to be relearned, that was lost in the analysis and reductionism of the twentieth century.

  7. The beauty of living near NYC is being able to follow up on a great review and see the real works!

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