Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bruce Crane, winter radiance

Bruce Crane stands out as one of the most sensitive and ethereal of the American Tonalist painters who saw themselves as carrying the torch of the American landscape tradition after the demise of the 19th century Hudson River School style. Crane helped found a colony of landscape painters at Lyme Connecticut. Most active as a community during the first decades of the 20th century, they blent Barbizon and Impressionist sensibilities toward a fresh, evocative re-visioning of the American landscape.

His landscapes are spare, poetic meditations steeped in atmosphere. Painting into the 1920s, he increasingly suffused his arrangements of natural elements with a golden radiance suggestive of a spiritual sensibility. His subject is usually common scenery - everyday scraps of nature: pastures gone to seed, tall, thin scraggly trees, collapsing rock walls, fences, and stumps. But he wonderfully half-dissolves his forms in the airy atmosphere he builds around them (for all their subjects' gauziness, these paintings's surfaces are quite thick with substantial layers of paint).

Like so many of the Tonalists who followed in George Inness's footsteps, Crane spent time in Europe where he was awed by the compositions and moods of Barbizon painting. Inness, it seems, had articulated a vision of nature very like Crane's some years before.

The above painting is by Crane. In mood, tone, and even somewhat in composition it recalls a well-known Inness depicting a lone figure making its way through scrappy snow on Christmas Eve (below).

Another Inness in which Crane could have found inspiration for his own work.

I'll return to Crane another day to really get into some of his most interesting later work.


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  2. Bruce Crane & George Inness have been two very influential painters to me. I knew Inness was from the Barbizon school initially and later pushed his work to incorporate more spiritual theologies of nature. I only know a little about Crane as he is not as regarded as Inness nor as written about. I heard Bruce Crane described as a Tonal-Impressionist, which I absolutely love, and have adopted to describe my own work when asked. While I have always seen some similarities between the two artists — muted color palettes, simplicity of compositional design, etc. — I never really noticed just how close they can be. Probably why both have been such a big influence on me. Thank you for such a wonderful post.

  3. Hi Mark -

    The kinship of those evening snow paintings really stood out for me, maybe because I've always admired that Inness with its warm orange glowing sky - so striking in combination with the cold gray snow and bare trees. I think the Tonalists, like Crane, are just beginning to come into their own in terms of the academic recognition they deserve and that we'll be seeing more and more material about them in the next few years... I think Crane's great too. I hope we see a book on him before too long. BTW, I took a peek at your work online - fantastic mood and mystery! Love it.

  4. Sometimes interesting discussions appear with perfect timing - I have just fallen for Crane's work after researching the Tonalists, and especially love his winter scenes. I think you are right regarding the recognition coming forth - you may have seen the new publication, A History of American Tonalism: 1880-1920 by Cleveland. It is a hefty book full of every bit of history a modern-day tonalist, or any painter, could want and love.

  5. Tonalist's paintings including Crane have declined in the last 10 years, many auctions and exhibitions of American Art do not even include tonalist paintings. Hopefully there will always be people who can relate to them but as people become more urban and addicted to there smart phones it makes me think of the decline of paintings of cows and livestock that were so valued a 100 years ago but now most are now in storage.

    1. The spiritual in these paintings which was the primary reason for this art form is invisible to those who cannot slow down and contemplate. That nature manifests trancendence, the discovery of the trancendentalists, is then manifest in this art and the best of them are among humanities greatest works of art. The world is blind.

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