AN EXPLORATION OF LANDSCAPE AND FIGURATIVE ART INFLUENCED BY THE FRENCH SCHOOL AT BARBIZON: THE TONALIST ART OF GEORGE INNESS (1825-1894), THOMAS DEWING (1851-1938) AND THE BOHEMIAN IMPRESSIONIST ART OF WILLIAM MERRIT CHASE (1849-1916): PART 1

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In this posting I am going to discuss the Tonalist art of George Innes , the figurative art of Thomas Dewing and quasi Impressionist art of William Merrit Chase. Before I discuss their particular art I wish to identify the group of Barbizon painters who so influenced Inness , Dewing and Chase. They were Theodore Rousseau, Paul Huet , Constant Trojon , Jean Francois Millet Charles France . They were associated the Plen air art of Monet Sisley and Daubigny. It is quite interesting to see Millet one of the foremost Realists amongst this group of Quazi Impressionists.

Baigell in his commentary points out the influence of the Barbizon school. ” Among the several landscapists influenced by Barbizon artists George Inness was clearly the most interesting and influential. apprenticed briefly as an engraver in the 1840’s he apparently taught himself to paint by imitating 17th Century artists such as Claude Lorrain and Hans Holbein”. [1].

” Inness painting of hazy skies and elusive suns might therefore symbolise the hidden nature of the celestial sun and ultimately of God. Inness suppression of detail and measured perspectives suggest the unfixity of spiritual space”. [2].

Baigell comments on the fact that if you study Inness’s work he was concerned to show how the object effects everything you see. “Inness attempted to show the effect an object produced rather than to describe the object itself. Humans when they appear in his paintings seem to be emanations”.[3].

”  You must suggest to me reality -you can never show me reality .it is no wonder that he rejected overtly realistic art condemning the Pre-Raphaelites because they ignored the reality of the unseen and spurning the Impressionists for their literal adherence to surface impressions”. [4].

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Baigell continues his commentary pointing out Inness’s brilliance as he used nature to express his ideas.

” In Inness’s early masterpiece Peace and plenty he used nature’s forms to express his thoughts. The painting and its title commemorated the still present hope of an agrarian utopia in America, the end of the Civil war the replenishment of the American spirit from the native soil”.[5].

Of course Inness was an incurable romantic and subjective idealist. That was not the reality .the slaves had been freed but there still existed class hatred between the former slave owners and this nascent upcoming Black working class who were later in the century to show their mettle in fighting Racism.

” Inness often organised his paintings into horizontal planes. the principal subjects generally placed in the middle plane were allowed to rise above the horizontal line. Even if skies threatened  or if the human figure was emphasised a characteristic of the paintings of the early 1880’s all actively seemed suspended”.[6].

” Through the 1880’s Inness’s style grew increasingly abstract. horizontal planes became flattened bands. opulent colour increasingly blurred details and broad masses replaced specific forms”. [7].

Baigell invests Inness with the ability to be concerned about the process of painting rather than painting itself which made him a much better artist.

” Inness seemed to concern himself more with the process of painting than with the subject and as his religious beliefs suggest with the spiritual correspondence of natural facts”. [8].

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Baigell shows how much of Inness’s art like Whistler’s was subjective art dominated by what the mind thought rather than the real material objects in external space. In that sense he was no realist.

” Inness’s version of Barbizon art appealed to younger artists and like whistler’s art entered the broad current of late 19th century subjectivism. Recently scholars have used the form Tonalism to identify painters influenced by these two artists but it should be understood that tonalism points to a general tendency rather than a specific movement”. [9].

” The figure painter Thomas Dewing is also considered a tonalist , because of his preference for elegiac moods and tonal use of colour”. [10].

Looking at Dewing and comparing him with Inness you notice the tendency to more figurative depictions and a foreshortening of the picture space .

” whatever the mood he evoked Dewing was a first rate arranger of forms. His figures seemingly able to breathe  and move in an ambiance of their own, are also integral to the pictures structure in ways that prompt comparison with Mary Cassatt’s paintings”. [11].

” Some artists who exhibited tonalist elements in their work also luxuriated in rich textures, lively brush work and the beginning in the 1880’s of impressionist colour. their subject matter appears less remote and dreamy and more physically responsive to the world about them”.[12].

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Baigell now suggests that artists like Inness and Dewing were influenced by Renaissance artists like Michelangelo de Merisis better known as Caravaggio, Frans Hals and the greatest realist of the 18th &19th Centuries Gustave Courbet.

” although such artists were influenced by Barbizon painters they also responded to the works of such artists as Caravaggio , Frans Hals and Gustave Courbet”. [13].

 [14].

” Nevertheless Chase became extremely popular in his day in part because he could paint with enough dazzle to attract the artistically curious but not frighten off the faint hearted”. [15].

Baigell shows how Chase’s palette changed over the years and his preference for pastels.

” Chase’s palette lightened during the 1880’s probably because of his interest in pastels. He painted increasingly number of landscapes but also completed several charming interior scenes and still life’s.“.[16].

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Robert Atkins in his book gives a more technical description of Tonalism.

” Tonalism and quietism both names refer to the type of late 19th Century and 20th century American painting and pictoralist photography that can be characterised as mysterious , romantic Melancholic ,personal idealised and muted in both mood and hue”.[17].

” Landscape was the tonalists’s subject of choice whether the misty images of an unspecified rural arcadia by George Inness or the poetic photographs of Alfred Stieglitz of New York blanketed under snow”. [18].

Finally Atkins sums up tonalism as a purely idealist method of Painting with Mystery and Romance thrown in to make it sound interesting.

” Tonalism was anti-scientific and anti-nationalistic moody landscapes – memento of the New World as paradise lost were painted in big  city studios- rejection of urban life and a rural ideal idyll”. [19].

This completes my first part exploration into the Tonalist art of George Innes and Thomas Dewing. I have briefly touched on the Bohemian Impressionist art of William Merrit Chase who I will discuss in detail in Part 2.

FOOTNOTES

  1. A CONCISE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PAINTING AND SCULPTURE THOMAS BAIGELL. PG. 150
  2. DITTO.PG.150
  3. DITTO.PG.153
  4. DITTO.PG.153
  5. DITTO. PG.155
  6. DITTO.PG.155
  7. DITTO.PG.155
  8. DITTO.PG.155
  9. DITTO. PG.155
  10. DITTO.PG.157-8
  11. DITTO.PG.158
  12. DITTO.PG.158
  13. DITTO.PG.159
  14. DITTO.PG.160
  15. DITTO.PG.160
  16. DITTO.PG.161
  17. ART SPOKE ART MOVEMENTS IN THE USA 1848-1948. ROBERT ATKINS.PG.207
  18. DITTO.PG.208
  19. DITTO.PG.208

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