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I am an artist living in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, Canada. My present passion is painting moody, poetic landscapes in the tonalist style.

What is tonalism?

Spanning the late 1880s to the 1920s, tonalism incorporated the use of subtle colour tones, and to quote the man who ‘wrote the book’ on tonalism, David Adams Cleveland, it is “an art about the feeling or mood evoked by the arrangement of landscape elements to project an emotion, rather than a realistic or representational depiction of a certain place.“

…an art about the feeling or mood evoked by the arrangement of landscape elements to project an emotion, rather than a realistic or representational depiction of a certain place.
In my own application of tonalism I try to stir the feeling of timelessness of a landscape. I have felt it when I gazed pensively over a meadow and felt as if I could be anyone standing there at any time period… an ancestor from a bygone era.

Tonalism really evolved from the French Barbizon movement which placed the emphasis on atmosphere and shadow and harmonized nature with man.

“While the historical roots of tonalism lie mostly with nineteenth-century American painters, tonalism’s branches extend across multiple time periods and geographies. Many twentieth-century artists worked in some measure under the influence of its aesthetic principles. Artists as diverse as Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt and Wolf Kahn have all been said to have painted to an extent in a tonalist mode; their works are united by a restricted (if not monochrome) palette, subtle modulations of closely related values, and a deeply conceptual and/or emotional/psychological (what used to be called “poetic”) approach.” (

As for tonalism in Canada, I have only discovered a handful of contemporary artists who refer to themselves as ‘tonalists’. One is David Sharpe. His bio states “David Sharpe is the sole Canadian member of the American Tonalist Society, and his landscapes wade heavily into tonalist territory.”

The Glossary of Canadian Art History on the Art Canada Institute webpage says this:

  • “Tonalism
    Emerging in the work of American landscape painters in the 1880s and following the influence of the French Barbizon school, Tonalism favoured an expression of a spiritual relationship to the landscape through dark, muted tones and hues. Associated with the work of artists including George Inness and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Tonalism emphasized the mood and atmosphere of a scene.”

In an article ‘Painting as the National Art: Canadian Art in the 20th Century‘ the writer states “Canadian Tonalism has been known for the usage of soft painterly application and muted colour harmonies, something used to turn the painting away from naturalism. Contrary to the Western’s radiance to light and dark, Canadian Tonalism produced scenes of delicate glow reflected on a surface, often used in paintings by the well-known Canadian landscape painter and Tonalist, William Brymner.”

Recently I discovered Mary Hiester Reid who was born in Pennsylvania, but after marrying Canadian artist George Agnew Reid, lived the majority of her life in Toronto, Canada. Her paintings, both landscapes and still life florals (for which she was renowned), were heavily influenced by the tonalist movement during which she painted. Choosing dark tones, a muted earthy palette, and loose, fluid brushwork, her work is very much the ‘poetic’ and ‘moody’ ideal of tonalism.

As far as tonalism in Nova Scotia, I found this article from the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Journal, Summer 2011

So, tonalism was alive and well in Nova Scotia back in the 1880s!

Enjoy the article:

Poetic Vision – Tonalist Etchings

Inspired by the plein-air Barbizon artists, who painted muted landscapes in sombre colours, and by the expatriate James McNeill Whistler, who advocated simplified composition and close colour harmony, many American landscape artists followed the lead of George Inness (1825-1894) and adopted an approach to painting later termed “tonalism”. By the 1890s dozens of these artists, who considered themselves an American Barbizon school, were employing a reduced colour palette to paint muted, intimate landscapes that extolled the rural roots of America. Many congregated at a summer artists’ colony in Arkville, N.Y., in the Catskill Mountains. John Francis Murphy (1853-1921), who had purchased land there in 1887 and persuaded a local businessman to build a hotel, was later joined by other artists including Alexander Wyant (1836-1892). E. Loyal Field (1856-1914), Ernest C. Rost (1867-1940), and Henry M. Rosenberg (1858-1947). Wyant and Murphy already enjoyed established reputations in the American art world and their paintings found ready buyers. Perhaps lacking a secure market for their paintings, the younger artists turned to etchings that could be sold to the New York print dealers who catered to an expanding popular market in the wake of the etching revival of the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Rosenberg later moved to Halifax and served as principal for the Victoria School of Art and Design (now NSCAD University) between 1898 and 1909. Twenty years earlier, he had been one of “Duveneck’s boys” in Munich and Venice, American art students who had elected to study with Frank Duveneck rather than at the formal academics. Otto Bacher, another of the “boys”, had pressed his colleagues and teacher to explore the etching medium by introducing them to his simplified method for applying the ground and biting the plate after the drawing was scratched through the ground. Since Bacher had brought his own etching press to Venice, the “boys” caught the attention of Whistler, who had come to Venice in 1879 to execute a commission from the Fine Arts Society of London for a set of 12 prints of Venice. From Whistler, they all learned how to enhance the etched plate with drypoint, adding scratched lines directly to the etched plate, and plate tone, leaving a film of ink on the surface of the plate in places to evoke the varied conditions of light.

The etchings Rosenberg made in Europe all reflect the influence of Whistler, balancing some areas of elaborate detail with others “draw[n] in one broad sweep”, but this approach would not satisfy the puritan sensibilities of the broad American market that preferred more evidence of hard work and less artistic “sweep”.

The Arkville-inspired etchings produced by Rosenberg, Field, Rost, and others between 1889 and the mid 1890s represent their attempt to replicate on the plate what the painters were doing on canvas through the use of a restricted palette to suggest the misty weather and fading light that can conjure up a time for meditation on lost rural values. Most often, these prints used the extreme horizontal format of Whistler’s Long Venice print from his First Venice series. Where Whistler would have used ink toning alone to convey varying light conditions, however, they employed the thousands of lightly etched lines that assured buyers they were getting something of value. Moreover, the Whistler approach required that the artist ink his ow plates and pull his own prints to assure control of the amount of toning, but use of lightly etched lines permitted the New York publishing firms to have the prints pulled in their commercially driven establishments, although the delicate lines reduced the life-span of the plates.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia Collection acquired one of these tonalist prints by Rosenberg in 1989. In preparation for an exhibition of Rosenberg’s paintings and prints in 2012, our Collection of such prints has grown steadily in recent years. Although Rosenberg’s European prints had been issued by the New York art dealer and publisher Christian Klackner in 1887 and 1888, for the new venture he turned first to Jellinek & Jacobson, a short-lived firm that issued an untitled pastoral landscape in 1889, and in the country, who listed many Rosenberg etchings in their catalogues during the 1890s, Evening Shadows, like the earlier etching, was marketed as a “remarque” print, meaning that a subsidiary image is lightly etched in the lower margin, the impression is printed on chine collé paper that has been laid over heavier paper, no title is printed, and the artist has hand-signed the impression in pencil. These prints, the first to be pulled from the plate, would be sold as a deluxe edition. The remarque would then be polished off the plate, and the title of the print and artist’s name etched in its place, for a subsequent run of prints sold at a lower price. At a third level, the plate would be printed on plain paper. Finally, additional prints would be hand-coloured to appeal to a still broader market. The Old Boat House is an example of one of these final-run editions. Our collection also includes similar long-format prints by Ernest C. Rost and E. Loyal Field that reflect their sojourns at Arkville. Rost’s The Evening Hour represents the third stage of such editions, being printed on plain stock without chine collé.

In 1891, Rosenberg etched two pastoral farm scenes for Fishel, Adler & Schwartz at Margaretville, a nearby village, and Kingston, a town on the Hudson through which the artists would have passed on their way to Arkville, that continued his exploration of a tonalist approach to line etching but reverted to standard landscape proportions. Because prints like these were intended to be displayed on a wall rather than hidden away from sunlight in a collector’s portfolio, many of them testify to the damage sustained over the years from poor framing methods and exposure to light and dampness.

The etching revival in the last quarter of the 19th-century had become an “etching craze” by the late 1880s. Modern prints had been originally seen as a supplement to an art dealer’s primary business, contributing about 1% to gallery profits in 1875, but then in 1883, as much as 75% might be grounded in print sales, leading dealer/publishers to offer ever-increasing catalogues of affordable and attractive prints for the buying public. At. The beginning of his career Rosenberg had benefited from this brief craze, but the New York Times reported on February 1, 1891 that the bubble of “popular demand for etchings” had burst, and perhaps the artist welcomed a respite from the long dreary hours needed to scratch the thousands of lines required for one of these complex etchings.

Mora Dianne O’Neill
Associate Curator of Historical Prints & Drawings