Tonalism and artist Elliott Daingerfield

By Courtney Taylor

While giving tours of Everlasting Calm: The Art of Elliott Daingerfield, I’ve asked groups how many of them have heard of tonalism. To this question there is silence; arms remain dangling at our visitors’ sides. But when I ask how many have heard of impressionism, hands rise quickly and heads nod in affirmation. It’s interesting to consider that tonalism was, in a sense America’s answer to impressionism, and favored by American critics, like New York Times critic Charles de Kay, over Impressionism. Elliott Daingerfield, in his biography of tonalist contemporary Ralph Albert Blakelock, praises Blakelock in what sounds like a dismissal of Impressionism: he writes, "No tricks of dots placed in juxtaposition—no decomposition of spectrum, no giving up of form for the sake of a dazzled eye…"(1) 

Albert Bierstadt,  Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains , California (1868), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Daingerfield’s words point the perceived differences between tonalism and other landscape movements of the period. Impressionism was understood in American criticism as observational—almost scientific—in its rendering of the effects of light and the color spectrum. Tonalism emphasized eliciting a felt experience—the felt experience described in literary works by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—where one could walk in nearby nature and experience the nearness of heaven, of the spirit moving through the landscape.(2) 

Tonalism grew out of a reaction to the “tired” formulas of the Hudson River School paintings, which held sway in American art into the 1870s. Elliott Daingerfield’s mentor, George Inness led the charge away from Hudson River School with his incorporation of Barbizon School stylistic innovations. Tonalist paintings move away from panoramic, highly detailed, and immaculately rendered topographical landscapes of a specific place of Hudson River School paintings. Barbizon influences included a smaller size, diminished detail, and subdued color. But Americans largely dropped the figurative—the Barbizon peasant scenes that carried a political message in Europe. Americans wanted a style had European sophistication, but an American spiritualism.(3) The tonalism movement held sway in American landscape painting from roughly 1880 to 1920, aligning almost exactly with Elliot Daingerfield’s most active years. 

Richard Clague (1821–1873),  Farm in St. Tammany , circa 1851–1870, oil on canvas, gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Groves. LSUMOA 60.2.2

Richard Clague (1821–1873), Farm in St. Tammany, circa 1851–1870, oil on canvas, gift of Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Groves. LSUMOA 60.2.2

Tonalists valued emotion and imagination, which meant valuing omission—knowing what details to omit. Daingerfield considered the ability to omit , “to select and see fully” as the “hardest gift.”  Indeed, tonalists eschewed the plein air practice of Barbizon and Impressionist painters to ensure there was room for imagination. Elliott Daingerfield writes, “The oft repeated phrase ‘Paint from nature’ is good if properly understood, paint from—in the sense of away, not by her, lest she has her way with you and not you with her.”(4)  Here, we must excuse the sexist overtones of his admonishment to ensure you have your way with “her” (nature) to understand his insistence that feeling should win out over facts—an imagined landscape that inspires emotion is far more important that representing a specific place. His words echo Inness’s assertion that “It is well to begin with nature, but one should go with art.”(5)

Courtney Taylor is LSU MOA's curator. 


  1. Daingerfield, Elliot. Ralph Albert Blakelock. (1914), 29.

  2. Cleveland, David. A History of American Tonalism: 1880–1920. (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, LLC., 2010), 355–360.

  3. Cleveland, xiv.

  4. Daingerfield, 11.

  5. Eldredge, Charles C., American Imagination and Symbolist Painting. (New York: Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, NYU, 1979), 111.