Friday, June 27, 2014

Mystery, infinity

Dwight Tryon, Evening, September, c. 1890

Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) was a dedicated Tonalist of the fields, sea, and shores of Massachusetts. He was passionate about Emerson and Thoreau, devoted to "the raw New England countryside and its Transcendentalist interpreters," resulting in a landscape art steeped in both mysticism and materiality, atmosphere and mood, "one of the consummate embodiments of the New England mind in the Tonalist canon."(1) 

Dwight Tryon, Moonlight in November, c. 1887
Tryon's work is well described by one of he best definitions of Tonalism I've encountered: "a generation of artists using tone as a distinct means of expression in its own right. Having jettisoned narrative content, tone became a new language, a signifier of mood, of mystery and uncertainty, and stood for the searching spirit of the age." (2)

Dwight Tryon, Sunrise: April, 1897-1899

"The less imitation the more suggestion and hence more poetry," the artist noted. For Tryon, of course, it wasn't about style - just as it was for Inness and his "unseen," painting was about communicating the "mood or special phase of nature," by which he actually meant: Eternity. As Tryon elaborated:

Dwight Tryon, Dawn, c. 1890

"Mystery, infinity. A painter who feels these truths in nature is humble. He frankly acknowledges there is something that cannot be painted. But this draws him on, and the highest and most lasting things are these suggestions. In this striving for the spiritual, the higher the whole, so insensibly but surely parts come to belong to the whole."(3)

Dwight Tryon, Evening

It was a vision of the spiritual embodied in the material, the concrete as symbol "of what we do not know, but may believe in." (4) "And his timeless meditations on nature would inspire modernists like Milton Avery and postmodern Tonalists like Wolf Kahn, as well as the floating dreamscapes of Mark Rothko." (5)

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1955

It turns out that Tryon painted what he considered "the nearest to a masterpiece of any I have produced" in none other than Ogunquit, Maine, where I am currently teaching a plein air workshop every Tuesday morning (email me if you would like to join us). 

Tryon received a commission in 1906 to produce a moonlit seascape. At that time in history, Ogunquit was home to a thriving art colony producing seascapes of national renown. Also a passionate fisherman, Tryon apparently came for the pollock to be had as much as for the views. 

The resulting painting, The Sea: Evening is indeed a masterpiece of Tonalism. As described by the curators of the Freer Gallery where the painting resides:

"Tryon's use of color reflects a cold austerity not expressed in his other seascapes. The subtle gradations of dark blues and greys in the sky, accented by the faded golds of the setting sun, elegantly complement the violet and lavender pigments of the ocean. The work's horizontal orientation and smooth, wavy brushstrokes suggest the movement of the waves; the delicately layered palette combined with the painting's large scale evokes an overwhelming feeling of calm."

Dwight Tryon, The Sea, Evening, 1907

The low-chroma colors and restricted palette leave the emotive work to the tonalities. It's almost a blueprint for future color field painting (such as Rothko's), what with its scale and its flowing, loosely handled horizontal bands of melting tonal color harmonies free from disruptive verticals. 

Tryon's magical week in Ogunquit (he was so visually enchanted by it that he proclaimed all other exotic locales "nowhere to this wonderful place") also inspired a gorgeous pastel. I love the moody tonalism in these paintings that express " the power and vastness of the sea and sky as elemental forces." 

Dwight Tryon, The Sea, Night, 1915

The Freer-Sackler has a nice web gallery with write-ups on each painting and a slide show showcasing its collection of Tryon's work here:

1. Cleveland, David A., A History of American Tonalism, 1880-1920, Hudson Hills Press, 2010, p. 273
2. Ibid., p. 278
3. bid., p. 277
4. bid., p. 281
5. bid., p. 281
6. Freer Gallery:
7. Ibid.:

Upcoming Workshops:

Cape Cod

"Beyond Plein Air" at Castle Hill Art Center, Truro, Mass.

July 7 - July 11, 2014

Contact them at 508-349-7511

Christopher Volpe,  Truro Dunes

Crawford Notch (New Hampshire's White Mountains)

Three-day workshop in the Whites. This is a pilot for a new Artist in Residence program I am helping to develop at the Appalachian Mountain Club's cozy Highland Center Lodge.

September 28-30, 2014
Contact me about this.


Cinque Terre (Italian Coast) 

A possible 2015 or 2016 workshop.

Contact me about this.


Those interested in my ongoing weekly class in Lowell, MA should Contact me  as well.


  1. These paintings are beautiful. Thanks for sharing the wonderful quality of his Tonalism

  2. Thanks Julie-,it must be even more breathtaking in person, as Tryon prides himself on how his paintings looked different in different kids of light as a result of the many glazes he uses to create atmospheric color.

  3. Thanks for the great post! I just saw some of your paintings at the Kennedy Gallery in Portsmouth tonight. Beautiful work! They look even better in person.

    1. Thanks Eden! Trade ya one for a trip to the Caribbean....;-)

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