"Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together."
The rich and lively tradition of American landscape painting is alive and well in the 21st century. Today, many artists are looking to the work and techniques of the 19th century to discover both a way back to beauty and a way forward for landscape painting in this century.
The 19th century artists of the Hudson River School, the first truly American style of painting, and the Tonalist artists who followed them, were influenced in large part by ideas that gained currency in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century.
The idea of artists working outdoors from Nature has been so completely associated with the late 19th century Impressionists in "popular" art history, that many don't know that working outdoors was actually a well established practice by the late 18th century. That way of working included both watercolor and oil sketching, but also emphasized drawing as a first step to learning to paint the landscape . It is to this pre-Impressionist tradition that many contemporary landscape painters are returning for guidance and understanding.
In Europe, by the late 18th century it was common for artists from many countries to head to Italy for a year or two to sketch the landscape. This was considered a sort of "graduate work" for aspiring history painters and others. There were "guide books" for artists describing a sort of tour of ancient sites and ruins that were recommended sketching grounds. Artists would return to their studios with drawings and sketches which would be used for years to come to craft landscape backgrounds for history and religious scenes.
The young Corot, who would become one of the most celebrated landscape painters of the 19th century did several tours of duty in Italy, (starting in 1825) producing some beautiful plein air work- including over 200 drawings. Corot became a member of the Barbizon School of landscape painters who frequented the Forest of Fontainebleau, near the village of Barbizon. Artists in this group included Theodore Rousseau, Jean Francois Millet, Francois Daubigney, Jules Dupre and Constant Troyon.
The common view of Tonalism is that it was a late 19th century reaction to the "grand" style of the Hudson River School- that the view of nature as Sublime and the conventions of that style- big dramatic views of the more awe inspiring elements of Nature- were rejected for a more intimate, transcendental view of Nature and style of depicting it. Tonalism marked a desire to reconnect with the landscape on a more intimate footing and a search for the spiritual in Nature. Both the aesthetic and intellectual underpinnings of Tonalism resonate in our time as well.
Charles Warren Eaton