An American art movement dating to the 1880s, Tonalism represents a progressive period that was used mainly in landscapes. Characterized by misty settings and muted tones, the movement was also associated with transcendental thought. The movement had considerable impact on the art world though it does not enjoy the popularity of other historic movements like Impressionism, for existence. Even so, Tonalism greatly impacted artists well into the twentieth century.
Artists influenced by principles of Tonalism applied atmospheric and often dark effects to convey murky landscape setting. Shapes became muted and abstract though the collective elements of the scene conveyed place and even time of day–typically dusk or dawn. Artists relied on the use of shadow to convey mood and explore the blending of hues but also touches of light to depict luminous effects. While not all paintings done in the Tonalism style could be described as somber, many imply that sensibility.
The movement is readily identified with America as dates to the post-Civil War period, a time when Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson wrote about nature in abstract terms and often with melancholy. Artists applied this thought to some measure to their painted compositions for an effect that is genuinely quite unique in art history. Some of painters known for working primarily in this style include James Abbott McNeill Whistler and George Inness; however, many other artists applied the style at times including Childe Hassam, Leon Dabo, John Twachtman, Dwight William Tyron, Bruce Crane, Percy Gray, and Henry Farrer.
Though Tonalism is readily associated with painting, it also influenced photography during the late nineteenth century. Photographers such as Edward Steichen also experimented with misty subjects; in fact, these works became known in photography as Pictorialism. While photographs might take on fantastical moods, the bulk of paintings and drawings in the Tonalism style often simply convey fog, murky landscapes, or even murky cityscapes. The feeling of rain and mist is heavily present in these works.
Some famous paintings that embody Tonalism practices include Nocturne in Blue and Silver by Whistler, Twilight by Alexander Harrison, November Morning by Dwight Tyron, Winter Road by Henry Golden Dearth, and Dusk by William Keith. For evoking atmosphere and mood, Tonalism is an influential movement. Painters well into the 1930s were still using some techniques that date to the Tonalism era. Fields, mountains, rivers, and streets are just some of primary subject matter that is represented by paintings in the Tonalism style.