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In my experience, “Tonalism” is not easily definable.  This is my attempt to draft an extended definition about what the movement means to me as a self-identified American Tonalist.


From an art history perspective, Tonalism is generally attributed to a period from 1880-1920 when a few American painters created small brown and gray images contained within a fairly narrow value range.  Art critics of the time described these paintings as “tonal”, chiefly relying on this definition by leaning on the crutch of the technical aspects.  This is half of the full expression of the definition.  I’ve found it to be more complicated.


I love art history.  I love illustration, Impressionism, the pre-Raphaelites, modernism, figurative art, sculpture…I love it all because it’s all connected.  Artists have unique voices in that we can talk to each other through the ages.  When I paint, I open up my art books and have a ‘discussion’ with Turner; with Monet; with J.F. Murphy; with Corot; with Crane; with Schmid, and many, many others.  We are all connected in this thing which allows us to self-express; which allows us to cement our voices into non-verbal imagery thereby allowing future generations to have a dialogue with us long after we are gone.


Tonalism first caught my attention sometime around 2014.  I had found the wonderful YouTube videos of Dennis Sheehan.  Through him, I was quickly made aware of the old masters and began to consume everything I could about their work.  I bought their art books and read and watched everything I could about their art.  More importantly I felt that I connected with Dennis in a profound way.  I understood what he was saying, and why he was saying it.  One of my favorite quotes from him is the following:


“It’s not good enough to copy nature.  Nature has to be transformed in some way.  Nature has to be filtered through the artist, and the artist has to spend time immersed in the subject matter they love.”


I must have rewatched those videos hundreds of times, often keeping them running in the background during the workday.  At this time, I felt a shift in my art.  I felt a sense of direction, of purpose to my images.  But direction will only get you so far without a destination.  I was missing a piece.  Something at my core was misaligned.  It turns out that Tonalism crystalized for me when I read the following quote by David Cleveland, author of ‘A History of American Tonalism: 1880-1920, Crucible of American Modernism’:


“Tonalism was shaped in the crucible of an indigenous sensibility that sought the enduring in the momentary: a very American reverence for the concrete and visible while striving to elucidate an underlying spiritual presence.”


This sentence spoke to me like it was written just for me.  It was the missing piece mentioned above.  Somehow, everything made sense and I understood why I was drawn to Tonalism.  American culture, much like a good painting, exists in a state of opposing forces.  Paintings have their light and dark; warm and cool; hard and soft; dull and bright.  The balance of these opposites can produce the most wonderous effects and draw out deep emotion in art.  Culturally, I find that America is currently out of balance.  We are struggling hard with ourselves.  What I think about is that we are a nation founded on strong religious beliefs, yet set in opposition a construct of secular laws.  For example, the very first amendment to the American Constitution prevents government from creating any law, policy, or regulation that could lead to the establishment of religion.  This Establishment Clause (the concrete and visible) is set in opposition to the religious fabric of this nation since its inception (the underlying spiritual presence).  The temporal and eternal.  Two forces, when in balance, allow for greatness (much like a painting).  But we are not in balance today.  Perhaps we really never were as illustrated here is this quote from art critic Sadakichi Hartmann in 1910 when he observed:


“The age, at least in the upper intellectual strata, has become very skeptical.  We are not concerned so much about divinities and our future state as about ourselves in the present.  Religion no longer furnishes the emotional staff on which we may lean on our pilgrimage of life, and yet we need some spiritual support, some science for the soul, and we may look about for something that may mystify us and lift us above the prose of every-day existence.”


Let me be clear, I am not a religious person.  I’ve struggled with faith.  Yet, something pulls at me.  There is something divine about this world, and my exploration of Tonalism has given me a causeway to express my own spirituality.  And people have connected with it, in part, because I feel people need to find a place that’s familiar, but foreign; real, yet fantastical.  Somewhere we can agree.  Where it’s not about the details, but the shared experience of something mystical.  A place that’s beyond the natural world, a place where the temporal and spiritual reign together in harmony.

Justin's Favorite Tonalists

Old Masters:

George Inness

J. Francis Murphy

Bruce Crane

James McNeill Whistler

Alexander Helwig Wyant

Thomas Dewing

Arthur Hoeber


Modern Masters:

Dennis Sheehan

Russell Chatham

John MacDonald

Richard Mayhew

Rachel Warner

John Felsing, Jr.

David Sharpe

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