Monday, September 10, 2012

Bruce Crane - Quiet Complex Simplicity

The Harvest Moon, by Bruce Crane, c. 1900

A student of mine sent in this autumnal landscape by Bruce Crane. As a prime example of 19th-early 20th century Tonalism, this lovely painting employs soft lines and a minimally limited palette in the service of delicate, subtlely modulated tones to produce an achingly lyrical, melancholy mood, an almost musical harmony of light, color, shape, and line.

The composition, as well as the atmospheric tonality, owes a rather large debt to George Inness.

George Inness, Moonlight, Tarpon Springs Florida, 1892

In both of the paintings above, the horizontal canvas is divided into four quadrants, three of which are blocked-in, atmospheric masses and the fourth of which is open sky crossed by two vertical trees (in both cases, one is dominant and one subordinate, one straight and one curvy). The foreground is in relative shadow and the middle ground gets a stripe of moonlight from one side of the canvas to the other.

Inness used some variation of this composition in many of his most evocative paintings (including one of my very favorites, Summer at Montclair, 1891). He placed spiritual significance on the geometrical arrangements of his landscapes and didn't hesitate to bring the four quadrants together in the exact center of the canvas, balancing out the resulting symmetry with the asymmetrical arrangement of masses and lines, as he did above in Tarpon Springs.

Crane uses some bared rocks and a patch of grass to mark the central dividing line of his landscape, but he raises the horizon line into golden mean/rule-of-thirds territory. Upping the contrast of the image shows that what seems at first to be a straightforward vertical arrangement contains significant "orthogonal dynamism" (High-Falutin for diagonals), achieved not with obvious lines nor color, but with subtle variations in the tonal values. (Hence, Tonalism)

Photoshop reveals the subtle diagonals that bring a sense of movement and life to an otherwise stripy composition. 
Note that, except for the moon, the brightest values appear on the two middle-to-background trees silhouetted against the background shrubbery. Inness placed most of the action in the middleground too, but here Crane, in the absence of figures, uses that technique to draw our eyes even deeper into the painting.

First, the eye strikes the main pair of trees in shadow at the center. It quickly glances along the exposed rock to the more brightly lit pair of trees in the back (which deliver a strong performance for supposedly supporting players). From there the gaze lands on the luminous disk of the rising moon, which Crane has floated quietly in a glowing web of pale violet and orange that's as true as any painting I've seen to the delicate atmospheric color tones of evening in New England.


  1. Enjoyed reading your analysis of the two paintings. Helped me learn how Tonalism influences the composition of a painting - something I had never thought of.

  2. Thanks Sharron! Writing about this stuff helps me understand it all better as well.

  3. Always enjoy your blog! I'm especially glad you pointed out the Inness often places the focus of his paintings in the center and then proceeds to balance out the rest of the composition. This process creates some very unusual and visually satisfying arrangements in his work which I greatly admire.

  4. Thanks Jan! I'm with you on the effectiveness of Inness's design. It's different altogether from "designing around the center," which as I understand it means mentally locating the center of the canvas and then composing elements around, that is to say, in relation to it, but not IN it.

  5. another lovely post! beautiful work~ and thought provoking analysis.