Twilight and Reverie: California Tonalist Painting 1890-1930



The following essay was written in 1995 by Harvey L. Jones and included in the catalogue for the "Twilight and Reverie - California Tonalist Paintings 1890-1930" exhibition held at Oakland Museum of California from February 11 through May 14, 1995.


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Xavier Martinez was not immune to the peninsula's charms. Early in 1909 Martinez exhibited his new landscapes at Vickery, Atkins & Torrey Art Gallery in San Francisco. These unusual portrayals of nature in somber moods were described by Lucy B. Jerome in the San Francisco Call (February 7, 1909):

The landscapes exhibited are in Martinez' most felicitous manner ... the gray effects so noticeable in California scenery are particularly well rendered, always with the sense of mystery and savagery that appear to mark the artist's work. Lowering sublime skies, glints of somber, lurid coloring, long lines of violet orange or purple, or tawny streaks of light, all subdued to fine harmony and melting into each other, are characteristic of these scenes. The towering limbed eucalyptus trees, their bending branches reflected in still shadowed pools, or waving against a darkening sky, or rising in majesty into the clear lights of sunset, their glistening leaves radiating the prismatic glow, are symbols of forest strength and power.

Eugen Neuhaus, one of the organizers of the Hotel Del Monte Gallery, had arrived in California from Germany only in 1904. He quickly became an influential figure in the arts communities of San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula as an artist, teacher, and critic. Neuhaus's early California landscapes combined impressionistic brushwork with the muted color harmonies of Tonalism in landscapes that captured a certain Barbizon spirit reminiscent of William Keith. Neuhaus later experimented with more progressive modern approaches to painting as a way of keeping pace with new trends while he headed the University of California Art Department at Berkeley.

The California Tonalist painters were roughly contemporaries with a large number of other American painters east of the Mississippi River who shared the artistic commitment to the Tonalist sensibility in painting. Drawing their inspiration and influences from the same sources--the Barbizon school and the landscapes of George Inness--some well-known practitioners included Leon Dabo (I868--I960), Elliott Dangerfield (1859-1932), Bruce Crane (1857-1934), Birge Harrison (1854-1929), Henry Ward Ranger (1859-19I6), and Leonard Ochtman (1854-1935). Thomas W. Dewing (1851-1934) was the most conspicuous American painter besides Whistler to synthesize an academic figure style with the tenets of Tonalism. Few California artists were devoted to figurative subjects. Although figure studies might seem to appeal more directly to the observer's identification with moods in painting, most artists preferred landscapes. Among the Californians it was Arthur Mathews and, to a lesser extent, his wife, Lucia, who maintained an interest in figurative subjects as well as landscapes throughout their mature Tonalist style. As a student Arthur was sufficiently accomplished as a painter of figures in the then prevailing official Beaux-Arts style to be admitted to the prestigious Paris Salons of 1887, 1888, and 1889. The individual figure studies among the easel paintings by Arthur and Lucia bear a strong stylistic affinity with Whistler's portraits. Typically, a solitary female figure is seated in a dimly lit interior gazing into the distance, the whole evoking a quiet, contemplative moon. The diffused lighting softens the contours of the figure; a shadow all but obscures the face. Tonalist figure studies rarely concerned themselves with the essential features of true portraiture. The details of a recognizable likeness of the subject were often sacrificed in service of a mood.

Tonalist painting in California owes a large debt to the work of Arthur Mathews. As a student at the Académie Julian from 1885 to 1889, Mathews was among the first Californians to witness the changes in French art that brought such vanguard modern art concepts as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to challenge the conservative academic status quo. However, it was his admiration for the French muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler that inspired Mathews's mature decorative Tonalist style of painting. The strongest influences of Puvis de Chavannes can be seen in Mathews's many mural commissions. Puvis was an academic painter whose linear, flat, patterned formula for murals representing allegorical figures in a landscape setting, reminiscent of Italian Renaissance exemplars, was much admired by many of the younger innovative painters at the end of the nineteenth century. Mathews's easel paintings, of both landscapes and figures, also maintained a relatively shallow spatial illusion composed of flat interlocking shapes arranged parallel to the picture plane, in keeping with the architectural integrity of murals. This intentionally decorative approach to painting employed the formal considerations of line, shape, and color for their own sake in anticipation of modernist painting in the mid-twentieth century.

Another Bay Area decorative painter was Raymond Boynton, whose arrival in San Francisco during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 is significant. Some of America's most prominent mural artists, including Arthur Mathews, painted decorations for the exposition's pavilions and exhibit halls. By the 1920s Raymond Boynton himself was well known for his mural commissions throughout the region. His paintings had evolved stylistically from a Tonalist sensibility toward a modern variation upon the California Decorative style of murals by Mathews or Piazzoni.

This "art-for-art's-sake'' approach was first championed by Whistler, one of the most important figures in the development of modern art. Whistler's paintings explored the aesthetic impact of carefully arranged line, shape, and color beyond their function to depict subjective content. The often cited Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Arrangement m Gray and Black No. I (Whistler's Mother) or the portrait of Thomas Carlyle, Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2 attest to Whistler's intent. The example of Japanese woodblock prints, with their emphasis on the "decorative," influenced his pursuit of subtle nuance and aestheticism in painting.

Whistler's landscapes and famous nocturnes exerted the strongest influence on American Tonalist painters. Whistler's effect on decorative painting in California was passed along through the teachings of Arthur Mathews while he was dean of the School of Design at San Francisco's Mark Hopkins Institute. Among his students were some of the most prominent California painters of the early twentieth century, most of whom assimilated some or all of the manifestations of the Tonalist aesthetic at some point in their careers. One such was Arthur Atkins, an artist of great sensitivity and varied interests, which included good music and literature. His published letters, many written from Europe in the last three years of his short life, reveal much about his cultivated taste in art and his devotion to California. In a letter from Paris in August I897 he writes: "My second volume of 'The Lark' reached me a few days ago. How utterly Californian it is and heavens--how Californian am I! It is the beginnings of great things to be done in California; from such a land, generous and open-handed, a great art should spring." Atkins wrote that he worked from nine until five in the galleries. "My drawing comes on well, I think; I am trying for construction and beauty of line, swinging things in, in as large a way as possible, aiming at the flowing long line and always thinking of design. I can't imagine how I could have been so blind to the Japanese before: they take me off my feet!" This emphasis on the decorative elements, which he also admired as Japanese influences on Whistler's "arrangements," can be seen in Atkins's Pines: St. Hospice, from 1897.

Lucia Kleinhans Mathews, Arthur's prize pupil, occasionally collaborated with him on projects involving decorative furnishings and designs for interiors executed in their jointly conceived California Decorative style. However, Lucia maintained a measure of her own distinctive artistic character within the style that manifested itself in her easel paintings. Lucia enjoyed a brief but meaningful contact with Whistler himself when she was one of five "California girls," as reported in a newspaper article, to have studied with him during his two winters of teaching in Paris. The others were Marion Holden (Pope), Carolyn Rixford (Johnson), Florence Lundborg, and Mabel Deming. It was further observed that the "maître" devoted an altogether disproportionate share of attention to the feminine portion of his clientele, which was segregated by gender, with the result that the other half became furiously jealous. "Whistler, however, serenely disregarded the rising discontent, only acknowledging its existence by an emphatic statement that the future of art was in the hands of women--a sufficiently remarkable dictum, but probably only representative of a momentary mood." Lucia Mathews's paintings from Paris in 1898-99 bear direct testimony to Whistler's influence.

Another student of Arthur Mathews who was heavily influenced by Whistler was Xavier Martinez. Martinez, who studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Académie Carrière, had brief contact with Whistler, who maintained an apartment and studio in Paris from I892 to 1901. Once, while Martinez was copying a portrait by Velázquez in the Louvre, Whistler came along and watched him and commented, "You have great talent, young man." Martinez painted Afternoon in Piedmont in apparent homage to the "arrangements" in Whistler's portraits of his mother and of Thomas Carlyle. In Afternoon in Piedmont Martinez careful "arrangement" of pictorial elements places his young wife, Elsie, seated before the partially drawn curtains of a window overlooking San Francisco Bay. The pensive sitter is shown in virtual silhouette against the warm glow of filtered light that bathes the interior scene in a vaporous atmosphere, softening the contours and muting the colors. In subject matter, style, and mood, Afternoon in Piedmont is a masterpiece of California Tonalism, and the epitome of "Twilight and Reverie."

It is reported that Whistler said that Charles Rollo Peters was the only artist other than himself who could paint nocturnes. Following his studies in Paris and after extensive touring throughout Europe, Peters returned to California, where he eventually settled in Monterey. There the artist specialized in moonlit nocturnes featuring romantic depictions of Monterey's old Spanish missions and adobes painted in a deep blue tonal palette. These works earned for Peters the sobriquets "The Poet of the Night" and "The Prince of Darkness."

Will Sparks is an artist whose many pictures of crumbling adobes set in a moonlit landscape have caused his name to be linked with that of Charles Rollo Peters. Sparks's paintings reveal his particular fascination with twilight scenes that combine the effects of both natural and artificial sources of light.

Among Californians who received their European influences through Mathews was Francis McComas, a specialist in watercolor who had the distinction of being invited to exhibit in the famous Armory Show of 19I3. His California landscapes in watercolor employed a palette of warm, muted tones yet with a luminosity that exemplifies the highest ambitions of Tonalism as a messenger of poetic light. Isabel Hunter, another Mathews acolyte, was an active member of the art communities in San Francisco and Monterey and was once engaged to McComas. Hunter's paintings of Monterey street scenes form visual associations with the villages of the French countryside painted in the Barbizon style.

Somewhat in contrast to the bold modern approach to watercolor as practiced by McComas, Sydney Yard employed a more traditional English watercolor technique in his depiction of coastal landscapes on the Monterey Peninsula. Reminiscent of intimate scenes by Inness or Keith, in their reference to Barbizon strategies, they further maintain an identification with the light and color of Tonalism.

Maurice Del Mue, Gottardo Piazzoni, and Granville Redmond, as fellow students at the Mark Hopkins Institute, followed Arthur Mathews's admonition to continue their art training in Paris, where together they continued their friendly association in the late 1890s. Both Del Mue and Redmond would experiment with a form of Impressionism in their later California Landscapes. Redmond seemed to alternate between the two contrasting approaches to painting throughout his career, with his very popular impressionistic scenes of California poppies and lupines providing support for the less lucrative Tonalist subjects that he preferred. It has been observed that Redmond's lifelong deafness was no impediment to his artistic achievement, but that it may have had its effect upon the painter's quiet introspective moods of his Tonalist scenes.

Giuseppe Cadenasso, another Mathews student, frequently painted scenes in a style that some critics of the time considered perhaps too derivative of Inness or Keith. However, Cadenasso achieved his own stylistic identity among the Tonalists for his many depictions of groves of tall, languorous eucalyptus trees. The distinctive blue gum trees, with their gracefully drooping branches and shapely masses of dusty gray-green leaves, had been introduced into California from their native Australia in the 1860s and, contrary to original intentions, proved to have more aesthetic than commercial value. The eucalyptus and its characteristic silhouette have contributed its now Californian look to landscapes by the plein-air painters as well as the Tonalists, for whom the trees created vague suggestions of quiet and repose or perhaps even a melancholy mood.

The Tonalist aesthetic, poised in time between the artistic sensibilities of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, looked backward for its traditional subject matter and its quiet sentiment at the same time as its reductive vocabulary of visual elements with emphasis upon art for its own sake looked forward to the modernist impulses of twentieth-century painting. Tonalism, along with its concurrent stylistic counterpart Impressionism, forms an important transition to contemporary trends.

By 1930 in California as elsewhere interest in the tenets of Tonalist painting was superseded by other progressive art movements. Inspired by new influences in painting from Europe, American painters in California began experimenting with their own distinctive variants on Art Deco, Surrealism, abstraction, and Fauvism, until American art ceased to look abroad for artistic influences after World War II.

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About the author:

Harvey L. Jones has been Senior Curator of Art at Oakland Museum of California since 1971. He holds a BA degree in art from Colorado State University and an MFA in art from Mills College. He was on the faculty of the Colorado State University Art Department for four years, teaching studio courses in drawing and design. He was the assistant to the director of the Mills College Art Museum for two years prior to joining the staff at the Oakland Museum. As a curator at Oakland Museum of California Mr. Jones has originated many exhibitions of both contemporary and historical painting and sculpture. He has written numerous books, exhibition catalogs and magazine articles on various California art themes and art collections that include: plein air and Impressionist painting, Masterpieces of the California Decorative Style of Arthur and Lucia Mathews, California sculpture, California folk art painting and sculpture, Twilight and Reverie: California Tonalist Painting, and the Art of the Gold Rush. His most recent exhibition with publication is A Legacy of Early California Painting: The Shumate Collection, opening May 26, 2001 at Oakland Museum of California.

Articles mentioning Tonalism from this magazine:

More resources on the Internet for Tonalist painting

Additional Distinguished Artist Series artists referenced in this essay, listed in the order of first appearance in the text:

Mr. Jones's essay is courtesy of the author.

rev. 5/25/01

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