top of page

Tonalism in Fine Arts: The Legacy of a Subtle Art Movement

George Inness, The Home of the Heron, oil on canvas, 1891.

Tonalism started as a painting movement characterized by a magical feel, hazy and atmospheric landscapes, and muted color schemes. It is still popular today across a range of visual arts, especially in cinema.

The Rise of the Tonalism Movement

Starting in the United States during the 1870s, Tonalism was formed based n a unique approach to color and light. By muting the bright colors, Tonalist paintings were given a mystic feel and dominated by minimal shades.

In the initial stages, the Tonalist movement was named Luminism to depict the painters’ approach towards their artworks - using light and shades of color as the main characteristic. However, they were later called Tonalists, since their paintings differed from the Luminists with an emphasis on landscape and monochrome features.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri Painting by George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1845. An example of Luminism.

The title “Tonalism” was given to this art movement by Wanda Corn in her print “The Color of Mood: American Tonalism, 1880-1910”, in 1972. In essence, it was inspired by the French Barbizon movement; this movement mainly focused on the harmonized relationship of man and nature that was expressed through atmospheric scenery and the play of shadows.

Starting on the East Coast, the movement later flourished in California in the 1890s, and from there spread to European and worldwide art communities - both academic and intellectual. The Tonalism movement blossomed at the same time as Impressionism and European modernism. Although it has been a more prominent and long-lasting style of art, it was overshadowed at the time by these other rather popular movements.

A Closer Look at some Master Tonalist Paintings

Some of the main figures of this art movement are James A. M. Whistler, George Inness, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and James McNeill Whistler. They are known for landscape painting and paintings that focused on mood and shadow.

James A. M. Whistler was largely responsible for the birth of the Tonalist Movement in American painting. He used color “arrangements” and was very interested in subtle tonal variations of closely related colors. Japanese art continued to have a profound influence on these artists, just as it did on the Impressionists. Aestheticism reigned in these works. John Henry Twachtman of New England combined both Whistler’s tonalism and Monet’s impressionist brushwork and palette to create haunting landscapes and, especially, snow scenes. - Brian Mahieu Plein Air painting and THE MOOD OF COLOR

James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871.

George Innes, Home at Montclair, oil on canvas, 1892.

Characteristics of Tonalism

By harmonizing color and forms, Tonalists bring about artworks of landscapes that provoke an emotional response and hint to cosmic harmonies in our world. The muted color palettes and gentle brush strokes are ever influential in visual arts while inspiring the creation of other art forms.

Lori McNee, Summer Light, oil on canvas.

The first thing that catches the eye when it comes to Tonalist artworks is color. Unlike Impressionists who practiced their art under the vivacious rays of the sun, Tonalists studied the colors of landscape outdoors. However, their art was only performed indoors. This practice gave their art a subtle, yet rich set of hues. Dark and neutral shades of colors, such as gray, brown, or green, dominate such paintings.

The Tonalist paintings offer a sense of unity over diversity; a serene harmony that embraces all that is spiritual and physical in a singular tone. Time is another key feature of Tonalist paintings, often emphasizing the passage of time. In contrast with Luminists, Tonalists often use smaller and more frequent brush strokes in their paintings.

Other characteristics of Tonalism include their poetic mood, elegant and uplifted façade of natural landscapes, menial adoration of the scenery, uniform colors, and simplified subject matters leaving much space for interpretation while conveying the message. All these paintings are often quiet and minimal, favoring misty weather over sunshine, moonlight over bright starry nights, autumn over summer; if the paintings represent summer and spring, the vibrant colors of these lively seasons are toned down with muted color palette.

George Inness, Winter Sky, Cleveland Museum of Art

Boasting a perfect aesthetic fit with the Arts and Crafts movement at the time, the delightful contours of Tonalism have never ceased to please the senses, have us contemplate nature's beauty, and enchant our souls.



New York State Museum, Pathway from the Hudson River School to Modern Art, 2020

Image Sources

Tutt’ Art. Edward Mitchell Bannister, Moonlight Marine, oil on canvas,1885.

Lori McNee. Lori McNee, Summer Light, oil on canvas.

Clark Art. George Innes, Home at Montclair, oil on canvas, 1892.

Clark Art. George Inness, The Home of Heron.

Wikipedia. Fur Traders Descending the Missouri Painting by George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1845. An example of Luminism

Tate. James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871

Tonalism. Winter Sky, George Inness, Cleveland Museum of Art

1 Comment

Unknown member
Jan 27, 2022

An interesting overview of this art movement - thanks!

Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page