I receive lots of questions about Tonalism, so would like to offer my thoughts about a little known (yet re-emerging) artistic movement.


Historically, Tonalism was a movement found in America generally from 1880-1920.  Relatively short lived, yet impactful in that traces of Tonalism can be found throughout most of the art movements of the 20th Century.  And today we are seeing a renewed interest with the founding of the American Tonalist Society in 2016, as well as strong showings online across various social media.


Tonalism is a nuanced term, but I like to think of it (for simplicity’s sake) as a coin with two sides.  One side contains the technical aspects, and the other the artistic expression. From a purely technical perspective, classic Tonalism consists of the use of a very narrow value range.  On a value scale of 1-10, the artist would choose three/four values to employ in the work, usually from the middle of the scale. For example, the artist would select a value set of 3-5, 4-6, or 5-7.  Nothing too bright, nothing too dark. A sense of atmosphere and mood conveyed through the use of these and other technical devices is generally also typical of classic Tonalism.


The other side of the coin is what interests me the most; the expression.  But perhaps a better word would be philosophy. Tonalism is steeped in contemplation, self reflection, and the development of a personal philosophy (likely for both the artist and viewer).  Think of Thoreau sitting at Walden Pond contemplating the place we occupy in this world and how nature relates--a spiritual awakening.


To me, Tonalism is about melding the rational and emotional; the temporal and eternal to arrive at a heightened state of spirituality.  The coin has two sides, yet it is still just one singular piece of metal. How the depiction of a fictional scene of the natural world accomplishes this is quite remarkable and a testament to the power of art.  


Want to learn more?  Here are some resources for Tonalism that I’ve used in my journey:

There are a few books scattered here and there on Tonalism, but I’ve really only used the following on a constant basis for reference and education.


“A History of American Tonalism: Crucible of American Modernism” by David Adams Cleveland.  This is really the only book one would ever need on the subject of Tonalism.  At over 600 pages, Mr. Cleveland presents an exhaustive analysis of every facet of the movement.


“George Inness and the Visionary Landscape” by Adrienne Baxter Bell.  Many consider Whistler as Tonalism’s founding father, and there are compelling arguments for that, yet I find Inness to be the true father of Tonalism particularly because of the application of his philosophy to his work.


‘Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly’ by Marc Simpson with contributions from: Wanda Corn, Cody Hartley, Michael J. Lewis, Leo G. Mazow, and Joyce Hill Stoner.  


‘The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism’ by Ralph Sessions with contributions from: Jack Becker, Nicolai Cikivsky, Jr., Ellen Paul Denker, Diane P. Fischer, William H. Gerdts, Carol Lowrey, Linda Merrill, and Lisa N. Peters.  This is a catalog which accompanied an exhibition put on by the Spanierman Gallery. Great excerpts from all the contributors.


‘The Art Spirit’ by Robert Henri.  I list this because it is so very instrumental for every artist to read, Tonalist or not.  Highlight parts which speak to you, make notations, mark it up and engage with the text. Doing so will pay dividends in your art education.

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