Autumn Landscape: The Tonalist and Impressionist Point of View

John Francis Murphy
Autumnal Landscape
(possibly Arkville, NY), 1898
Carol Lowrey

My recent blog on Emile Gruppé’s Vermont scenes (coupled with a pleasant drive upstate), has prompted some further musings on autumn landscapes by American painters. However, this time, I’m going slightly back in time to peruse some Tonalist and Impressionist pictures from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Charles Warren Eaton
November, Montclair, ca. 1890s
The writer George Eliot described autumn as a “delicious” time of year and rightly so, in view of its colorful foliage and golden atmosphere, which appealed to artists with a love of nature and an intuitive approach to painting. This was certainly true of J. Francis Murphy (1853-1921), Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937) and Bruce Crane (1857-1937) , who were associated with Tonalism, a very suggestive mode of painting that became fashionable during the 1880s. Preoccupied with conveying mood, Tonalists liked autumn because it was a transitional time of year––a much more poetic season than summer. Painted at contemplative times of day such as dawn and dusk and in varying types of weather, their fall landscapes typically feature isolated rural locales which they depicted with a limited palette of harmonious colors and with expressive brushwork that made forms blurry and indistinct––an approach that imbued their work with a gentle lyricism and a feeling of relaxation. I’m not at all surprised that Tonalist landscapes found their way into the parlors and dining rooms of contemporary collectors such as William T. Evans and George Hearn, providing them with a welcome visual refuge from their harried lives in the New York business world.

Bruce Crane
Autumn Landscape, 1933
Tonalism and Impressionism were contemporaneous movements, each reaching its high point in about 1915. You can see the difference between the Tonalist take on autumn and that of the American Impressionists when you compare the works I’ve just mentioned with Willard Metcalf’s (1858-1925) The Red Oak No. 2 (below). Considered one of the finest interpreters of the American countryside (one critic dubbed him the “Poet Laureate” of New England scenery), Metcalf painted this view of a sunlit upland pasture in Cornish, New Hampshire, on a bright day in October of 1911 (the date, title and location are inscribed on the verso of the canvas). With its structured composition and broken brushwork, the painting is, in my opinion, a classic interpretation of autumn in “good old Yankee land,” the lively hues (look at that resplendent shade of blue!) reminding us that, in contrast to the Tonalist emphasis on ambiance, the Impressionists were concerned first and foremost with color and light. Whether you prefer the romantic aesthetic of the Tonalists or the more direct and optimistic Impressionist vision of Metcalf, I’m sure you agree with me that these painters all reveled in the beauty of autumn––a season that’s always been popular with those who wielded a brush.

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