UNDERSTANDING THE TECHNIQUES OF AMERICAN TONALIST AND IMPRESSIONIST PAINTERS
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
3 VIEWS ON THE AGING OF PAINTINGS
Artists at the turn of the century had access to large amounts of information about how painting materials aged, but the ways they interpreted this information seemed to depend upon whether they were more in the tonalist or impressionist camp. In 1910, the tonalist painter Dwight Tryon told a collector that “the big Ogunquit picture [by Tryon] owned by Freer would get better tone of color in a year or two more” (Bryant n.d.).
The three generations of the White family have a tradition of accepting the effects of time, on their own paintings and on the paintings that the family has collected by other artists, perhaps out of fear that the interference of a conservator will affect the tone of a picture (White 1992). In 1935 Henry C. White sent a picture to a conservator with the underlined instructions: “Nothing to be done to the face or front of the picture at all” (White 1935). Nelson C. White wrote a biography of Abbott H. Thayer that included Thayer's essay, “Restoration: The Doom of Works of Art.” Thayer wrote: “The restorer's whole legitimate business with a picture is with its back. … One touch that attempts the minutest restoration or modification of their appearance is necessarily worse than insentient time and the elements can possibly inflict” (White 1951, 245). Henry Ward Ranger went one step further, threatening that if any conservator used a solvent on one of his pictures and damaged a glaze, “I shall be awaiting Mr. Restorer on the other shore, mighty close to the landing” (Bell 1914, 125).
These tonalist views of the effects of time on paintings are in strong contrast to the views of a painter like James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). At the famous 1878 libel trial of Whistler v. Ruskin, Whistler was asked whether he put his paintings outdoors to mellow. He said, “I certainly do put the canvases into the garden that they may dry in the open air while I am painting, but I should be sorry to see them ‘mellowed’” (Whistler 1890, 6).
Childe Hassam seems to have understood how impressionist pictures, with their emphasis on pure color, could be injured by the changes that can occur over time. Hassam wrote in tribute to his fellow artist Gari Melchers (1860–1932) that his “work was so sound and sane and clear that if we could come back and look at these pictures three hundred years from now … we would see them as they are today” (Hassam 1933). Hassam's account of the beginnings of impressionism credited English watercolor artists as being “the first to work out of doors with a clear palette—the very medium called for clarity with its white paper, and no oil or varnish to turn dark brown” (Hassam 1933).