UNDERSTANDING THE TECHNIQUES OF AMERICAN TONALIST AND IMPRESSIONIST PAINTERS
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
The written sources and the paintings of the American tonalists and impressionists present evidence that is complex and sometimes contradictory and confusing, perhaps because the tendency has been to see the paintings of this period as more straightforward in technique than they actually are. This complexity can be explained in part by the fact that neither American impressionism nor tonalism was a monolithic movement; many of the painters came to their mature styles late, after training in a variety of different styles. And many of the artists continued to evolve even after they developed a mature style; Childe Hassam flirted with tonalism when he first arrived at Old Lyme, and even Henry Ward Ranger's paintings became somewhat more impressionistic toward the end of his life.
Instead of contradictions and inconsistencies, conservators may be seeing in part the diversity of choices that were available to artists by the first part of the 20th century. The writer D. H. Lawrence, who traveled and painted in the United States during the period when many of these pictures were made, wrote about these choices: “the mediums to be used, the vice of linseed oil, the treachery of turps, the meanness of gums, the innocence or the unspeakable crime of varnish: on allowing your picture to be shiny, on insisting that it be shiny, or weeping over the merest suspicion of gloss and rubbing it with a raw potato” (Lawrence 1988, 78).