As a painting artist I face daily the challenge of color and if I think back, it is possibly the love of color that drew me into art, in the first place. In the following I will make a little incursion into art history, looking at the tonalist movement in painting and in particular at James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).
Often, in the discussion about the use of color in painting, a distinction between two stylistic movements is made namely between tonalism and luminism. Tonalism is an historical approach to painting that systematically represents a landscape (or any other subject matter) as being permeated by a dominant tone and a restricted color scheme. Tonalist painters used earth colors: umber, ochre, earth reds and black. Their paintings are often characterized by smudged contours and low-key palettes as a means of depicting the psychic dimension of the physical world. They shared a dislike for the extroverted, bravura brushwork and the strong colors of Impressionism. The subject matter is never entirely apparent; there is no effort to communicate a message or narrate a story. Instead of relating a story, each sensitively chosen color, composition, and line is arranged to create an intriguing visual poem. The palette is minimal, characterized by warm hues of brown, soft greens, gauzy yellows and muted grays. Preferred themes were evocative moonlight nights and poetic, vaporous landscapes. These painters seemed to have favored unconscious states and psychological experiences over reality.
J. M. Whistler – Arrangement in Grey and Black, 1871
Among the tonalists, one name springs directly to mind: James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Whistler spent most of his time in Europe (Paris and London). While Whistler started under the influence of Gustave Courbet’s realism, moved through Impressionism it finally arrived at a personal, distinct style, specializing in portraits and a genre he largely invented himself, the Nocturne. It is said that Whistler’s nocturne paintings have been the inspiration for Debussy’s musical nocturnes.
J. M. Whistler-Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, 1870
Just a look at the list of titles of Whistler’s paintings reveals that color and color harmony was his vehicle of communication. Without even seeing the paintings the titles set the stage for a poetic mood. He said: “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color”.
So, did Whistler actually seem to believe that there could exist a science of color harmony? Probably yes and no: Yes, in order to imply that the value of art is timeless and objective, as timeless and objective as the truths in science; No, in order to refuse to any scientist, or to any writer, the right to tell the artist what he must do. For Whistler, harmony, like poetry, was both the antithesis of art and the essence of art. The writer’s poetry is not art but the painter’s poetry is.
Graduated from Florence Academy of Art, shares her time between painting and doing research at Gothenburg University.