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Thoughts on Tonalism

Naturalism and Transcendence in Contemporary Painting

This talk deals with an exploration of the history and meaning of a tonalist approach to painting and its application within a contemporary context. What is Tonalism, where did it come from and what is its philosophical foundation as a kind of artistic expression? What is the justification or necessity for looking to the past as a primary source and paradigm in the visual arts and how and why should this approach compel the viewer? What is the importance of a return to the aesthetic for its own sake?


Historically, a variety of artists in the Northern California area seem to have been drawn to Tonalism, an approach to painting that was limited in its palette, based in a lower key and favored a subject matter that was inclined to the implication of mystery in nature. Interest in Tonalism in the San Francisco bay region was, it is thought by some, due to the natural tonal quality of a landscape visually muted by its proximity to the ocean and incessant fog.


The tonalist approach in California seems to be an outgrowth of Luminism which is as well a product of the Hudson River School. And certainly the landscape is Tonalism’s favorite subject. California artists were influenced by the work of American painters like George Inness and James McNeill Whistler.


As well, French artists from the Barbizon group like Corot and Daubigny demonstrated an appeal to emotion over visual accuracy and an emphasis on the effectiveness of suggestion over careful depiction, an idea that found favor with Northern California painters such as William Keith.


An artist who initially sought a very careful optical accuracy, Keith was eventually seduced by the delicate nuances of light and color that gained such remarkable power within what seemed the almost innocent spontaneity of George Innesse’s brushwork.


What appealed to Keith was an emphasis on the mystery of nature. A mystery more likely to reveal itself in the contemplative evening light or a moonlit night, periods when the emotions of nostalgia and longing mingle with the unsure-ness of our visual acuity, turning us inward to reflect upon what we can’t know. A time when all objects open themselves to pareidolia and interpretation evolves into perfect subjectivity in a space between reality and dreams. Here then lies the contemplation of being, the intimation of a reality beyond the forms of sensibility, a gentle confrontation, often slightly melancholic, with the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”


It is a heightened Romanticism, a short cut of sorts to the experience of the sublime from which the painter of perfect details always falls just a bit short.

Interesting is the degree to which Inness extolled the virtues of Corot who he describes as a poet and the lesser qualities of Meissioner an artist he saw as a “scientific painter.” Inness saw the irony and contradiction that the perfectly accurate depiction of a sublime scene falls so short of the actual experience of nature’s reality. Consider the Grand Canyon as a painting and actually standing at the North Rim and taking in the view. Inness claimed the superiority of a primary emotional communication: that a painting should stir the emotions directly in the same way the actual experience of nature did. And in that sense the painting is separated from the exacting nature of representation into something that is in and of itself an evocative experience.


What Keith and the Tonalists so remarkably chose to give us instead was an accent on the primary experience and not the replication and, therefore, diminished quality of the primary experience.


The late paintings of Keith that call our attention so vividly to his brush work, ask on the one hand only to be what they are: paintings. And on the other hand they elicit within the viewer the experience of the sublime through form and suggestion: a mystery uncompromised by a failed or distracting verisimilitude.


It is in the ambiguity of the work, the work calling attention to itself as a work, that we discover its efficacy. And Tonalism lends itself, through the impositions of its palette and the seeming imperfections of its suggestions, as a vehicle to that efficacy.


Furthermore, in Inness and Keith there is an abandonment of glib or facile brushwork and an almost ostentatious attention to process and struggle, validating a guilelessness and generating a sense of primitive sincerity, a sense of primal virtue, the noble nature of unsure effort in an attempt to find a sure resolution and beauty. 


Northern California Tonalism suggested a more formal approach to painting, while to some degree standing in opposition to the aggressive nature of color and light found in Impressionism, particularly as it was represented in Southern California. The Tonalist palette avoided saturation in favor of a poetic subtlety, a poetry Tonalist painters often saw as lacking in the too “scientific” emphasis on strict observation and the “instantanaiety” of the moment in light and color celebrated by Impressionism. The intensity of Impressionist color communicated a landscape drenched in revealing light and soon suggested exaggerations of color that were seen as perhaps too gaudy, even saccharin by some Northern California painters.


My interest in a tonal approach to painting is predicated on a continuing interest in nature as something mysterious and beautiful and finally compelling, as well as, what seems to me, a kind of hopelessly fractured dead end in the world of contemporary art. The true realization of the aesthetic unfettered by the distractions of political or social message leads the viewer to a reconciling contemplation of the grave and constant in human experience, a contemplation that seems to have been lost in the turgid maze of art theory and political rhetoric that characterize so much of contemporary art. I looked to the past as a way forward and I found the Barbizon painters, their legacy and influence in American and California painting, a resulting tonalism and ultimately an approach to art that seemed to defy temporary fashion and offer continued possibilities.

Paul Roehl


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