Tonalism In Northwest

Fog scene in Bay Area
Fog scene in Bay Area, photo by Hui

Besides the northeast area centered around Old Lyme, CT, New York and Hudson Valley such as Arkville, tonalism, at the end of the 19th century, also flourished in Northern California. In 1996, Santa Barbara Museum of Art held the exhibition “A Painter’s Paradise: Artists and the California Landscape“, listed a period from 1890 to 1906 as the flowering time of tonalism in California.

The timing was important. In the last ten years of the 19th century, economic renewal revitalized Northern California landscape paintings. The rising fame of tonalism painters from the Northeast and their works probably reached the west coast through improved transportation. But once the seed fell onto the fertile ground, it grew big and fast like any fruits in California.   Especially in Bay area,  the  many moods of the clouds and lights, the forceful ocean yet gentle hills and the harmonies of contrast of the nature, all serve to be the integral elements of paradise for tonalism painters.

Two important figures serves as the catalyst of the movement. George Inness visited and worked in California in 1891.  James Whistler also found a natural echo of his aesthetics in Northern California. If the abandoning picturesque-ruggedness of Connecticut farms arose artists’ sentimental recollection of puritanical spirit lost in New England, then the fog and haze, dusk and moonlight, all too common local temporal conditions, make tonalism a natural choice of the artists in the Bay area. Once they’ve seen the works of Inness or Whistler, they equated the tenets of tonalism with the poetic truth of the Bay Area.

In 1890, after five years’ study in Paris, Arthur Mathews returned to San Francisco where he directed the California School of Design. Deeply influenced by the works of Whistler he demonstrated a strong preference of reductive decorated forms in his artworks.  Under his tutorship, a group of artists such as Arthur Atkins, Giuseppe Cadenasso, Gottardo Piazzoni, Francis McComas, Granville Redmond and Xavier Martinez developed their own individual styles, all from the vein of tonalism.

A painting by Granville Redmond
A painting by Granville Redmond

Granville Redmond is now regarded as a California impressionism painter because of his iconic pictures of flowering poppies along  the hills. But he also painted numerous tonal paintings featuring mist and sunset. Thus I disagree with coining him with the term of California impressionism painter.  For Redmond, the nature of the subject dictated the way it should be treated. If the sweeping golden poppies demanded a more impressionistic pointillistic brushstrokes and color schemes, then the oaks of Monterey County brought dark tone and soft contour more appropriate and closer to his heart. He once confessed that he desired to “paint pictures of solitude and silence”, yet “alas, people will not buy it. They all seem to want poppies.” Some of his best paintings exemplify Californians’ view of their own habitat: a near Narcissistic self-absorption of the land and the weather whose beauty and geniality could not be matched anywhere else.

Top:Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge by Whistler, Bottom: Adobe By Peters
Top:Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge by Whistler, Bottom: Adobe By Peters

Charles Rollo Peters’ moonlit landscapes were praised by Whistler  who regarded him as the only other artist who could paint nocturnes. But the “Prince of Darkness” lacked the touch of Orientalism that Whistler infused in this paintings. By the time Whistler painted his master piece “Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge”, he had abandoned his early Asian pastiche style. In that painting, there is no trace of the Westernized Asian motifs which were common in his early paintings such as “Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks”. Instead, it is minimized to barely suggestive forms, which is quintessential Asian:  Art only communes through evocative minds.

The nocturnes in Charles Rollo Peters tend to be more representative than abstract. Those primitive Spanish adobes at night are painted in rich texture and a ghostly combination of blue and purple. But a few here and there dashed complemantery color of orange indicating light through windows showed a humanized nature in its minimalistic style. If Whistler speaks of forms in his nocturnal pictures, Peters’ deliberate choice of colors and subjects marked his unique personal style.

William Keith is probably one of the most celebrated California landscape painters nowadays. Like Inness, his 1870’s panoramic works demonstrated that he possessed the capability of rendering magic lights in the divine nature on six footers. But he became an adherent to Swedenborgianism and changed his style to Barbizon that suggested the spiritual reality beyond the surface forms of nature. In those forest interiors at sunsets pictures painted in 1890’s, the locale became irrelavant and the brushstrokes became not only visible but also an important integral part of the painting. Although some scholars have argued there was religious overtones in his late works, I have found to be able to see what he has seen, to feel what he has felt and to think what he has thought is both intimate and liberating.

Approaching Storm by William Keith (Courtesy to Met)
Approaching Storm by William Keith (Courtesy to Met)

The tonalism in the Northeast seems to gradually die out, not directly from impressionism with which they co-existed during the turn of the century, but from the rise of modernism in the 1910’s and 1920’s. However, the ending of California tonalism came sharply because of the devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 which destroyed 80% of the city including the School of Design as well as most of the artists’ studios and paintings. Some went aboard, some went to Southern California where the bright light and warm weather favors a more impressionistic artistic style. A few stayed in Monterey peninsula. But never again was there a coherent and talent group of tonalism painters hubbed in San Fransisco.

On April 7, Bonhams will have a sale on “California and American Paintings & Sculpture” including paintings by Redmond and Keith. My personal favorite are Lot No. 15 “Figures Beneath the Oak” and Lot No. 16 “A Forest Glade” ,both by William Keith. The latter was exhibited in San Francisco Museum of Art, November, 1938 and Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939. Although the values of California Impressionism paintings by painters such as Maurice Braun, Alson Clark, Armin Hansen, Anna Hills, Hanson Puthuff, have increased rapidly, the tonalism paintings are still in affordable range. Under 10,000 dollars, one can still own one of the best works by William Keith, a master in Western landscape and a strict follower of George Inness. I do not speculate on the values of arts as investment, but I do believe that the artistic values relies on the power of communication between the souls. If it speaks me, then that is of great value.

PS: “Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge”, a treasure piece from Tate, can be seen now on Guggenheim Museum of New York for the exhibition “The Third Mind”.

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