In the decade following the Civil War, America came to terms with its great loss–both of a generation of young men, and the feeling of high spirited nationalistic pride and belief in itself as the chosen land and the chosen people of God’s creation. The societal underpinnings of religious faith were likewise shaken. The operatic creations of Hudson River School artists like Church, Cole, Bierstadt and Moran seemed completely out of touch with a more subdued and melancholy national zeitgeist. A quiet more reflective art was more appropriate to the public mood.
As a result, by the 1880’s nothing short of a revolution had occurred in American landscape painting. The large panoramic views and detailed foregrounds of the Hudson River School were replaced by the suggestive, atmospheric and intimate landscapes of the Tonalist artists. The first generation of Tonalist artists like George Inness had begun painting in the prevalent Hudson River School style at the beginning of their careers, but pioneered a new poetic, spiritual, and personal style of landscape painting. These evocative landscapes struck an elegiac chord, often depicting transitional times of day and autumnal seasons.
The first generation of Tonalist artists, born between 1840 and 1865, were shaped by American experience and culture. In the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Americans found a different way of responding to nature and a more mystical spirituality. No two authors were more widely read and had a greater influence on late 19th century American thought and culture–an influence that lasts to this day.
Emerson (1803-1882) first set forth his philosophy of Transcendentalism in the 1836 essay Nature. Emerson espoused that nature was an emblem or symbol, and its relevance lay in the insights it provided into the human mind and spirit. As a mentor and friend to Thoreau, Emerson asked the young Thoreau “do you keep a journal?”, an inquiry which spurred the perhaps most prolific journal writer in American literature.
Thoreau (1817-1862) although a fellow Transcendentalist, was cut from a very different cloth. Emerson was full of Romantic subjectivity, using brilliantly insightful generalizations and intuitive leaps about the realm of the spirit. Thoreau was a wanderer, a nature writer, and a keen almost obsessive observer of the natural world. As a result, his more empirical approach was the platform from which he drew insights into the human soul. For Thoreau, nature was reality, important for its own sake as well as for symbolic purposes. But for both Emerson and Thoreau, the meeting of the material and the spiritual world in a transcendent experience was the goal and a possibility for every human being.
Nature was no longer simply the Hudson River School’s symbol or evidence of God’s presence in the world, but instead was itself the conduit through which this transcendent state might occur. For Thoreau particularly, the act of perception of Nature was the first step toward a “mystical unity of the observer and the observed”.
Emerson lectured widely in his later years and his ideas began to catch the public imagination especially after the Civil War. Although Thoreau died in 1862, his work was not widely read in America until the 1880s. His combination of transcendental philosophy, non-sectarian spiritualism, and dedication to the idea of correspondence between man and nature, made him a perfect prophet for the Tonalist revolution. His nature descriptions were praised by the subsequent Tonalist generation of artists. Dwight Tryon called Thoreau “the best landscape word painter”.
Today, the Tonalist style of landscape painting has reemerged as a contemporary movement. The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the original Tonalist movement, and its emphasis on a personal relationship with nature, makes this style particularly appealing to the contemporary landscape painter and an apt reflection of our times. The landmark publication of David Cleveland’s History of American Tonalism in 2010 introduced a whole new generation of artists and collectors to the Tonalist aesthetic. The growing interest in this style of painting is reflected in the recent formation of the American Tonalist Society and its inaugural exhibition at the historic Salmagundi Club in New York, an institution with deep ties to the original Tonalist movement.
In Part II of this post, we’ll take a look at the contemporary landscape painters who have adopted the Tonalist aesthetic and how their works both reflect the historic roots of Tonalism and represent a leading edge of contemporary landscape painting.