Charles Warren Eaton
(Albany, New York, 1857 - 1937, Glen Ridge, New Jersey)
As a younger disciple of the American landscape painter George Inness (1825-1894), Charles Warren Eaton is classified by art historians as a Tonalist. Certainly the works he created between the late 1880s and into the early part of the twentieth century would meet the criteria for this art movement, identified as “a style of intimacy and expressiveness, interpreting very specific themes in limited color scales and employing delicate effects of light to create vague, suggestive moods.” (1)
Prior to the later twentieth century, Tonalism was seen by historians either as a subgenre associated with the flowering of the Impressionist style in America, or as simply a derivative of the landscapes of the French Barbizon. “The artists of the movement were not concerned with transcription, but with poetic evocation, suggesting in pure landscape the feelings of reverie and nostalgia, psychological states often associated with and induced by evening and night particularly.” (2) “The intent was to transport the viewer from everyday life to subtler realms, to transcend ordinary perception and engage the imagination.” (3) Because of the artists’ emphasis on poetic and pictorial qualities, as well as its perceived irrelevance to the evolution modernism, Tonalism was long considered a movement of minor importance at best. (4)
With its roots in the nineteenth-century American predilection for the paintings of the French Barbizon school [as championed by the Boston painters William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) and George Fuller (1822-1884)], Tonalism found its fullest expression in the writings of Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916), and in the landscapes of George Inness, Alexander Wyant (1836-1892) and Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897). (5) As a group, the Tonalist paintings of these and other artists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries display a preference for flat or gently hilly landscapes, depicted at transitional times of the day—early morning or evening—and during the seasons when the landscape was largely barren such as later autumn, or winter or early spring. In these landscapes either a single color predominates, or the scene is viewed through an atmospheric haze that lends softness to forms with consistent color values. (6)
These were also prime characteristics found in the late paintings of the most influential artist whose works inspired Tonalism, George Inness. While Inness had begun his career as an adherent of the landscape tradition of the Hudson River painters, by the late 1880s he was producing works in which the forms were softened by glowing, veiled light, creating a mist-enveloped and transitory environment. These paintings summarize Inness’s goals for his work of the 1890s: “Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion….Its’ real greatness consists in the quality and force of this emotion.” (7) A highly spiritual man, Inness’s late work is believed to reflect his response to nature as a religious experience. As a Swedenborgian, he appreciated that the spirit world resembled and could be apprehended in the same fashion as the natural one, and the meaning of his late works resides in the belief that his art could reveal this relationship. (8)
Eaton became acquainted with George Inness in 1889 when the younger artist rented a studio next to Inness’s in the Holbein Building on West Fifty-fifth Street in New York City. Art was an avocation for Eaton at first; he had worked as a store clerk in his hometown of Albany, New York, before he developed an interest in painting at the age of twenty-five. He moved to New York City in 1878 and acquired traditional art school training at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League. (9) His preference was always for painting landscapes, and his exposure to the landscape subjects of the Barbizon painters during a visit to France in 1886 led Eaton to a similar approach. He enjoyed moderate success, and his quiet, romantic visions of nature appealed to Inness, who sensed a kindred artistic spirit.
When Eaton returned to the United States in 1887 he took up residence in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he lived until his death in 1937. In addition to the New York studio in the Holbein Building, Eaton shared a studio space in the town of Montclair with Inness and his son, George Inness, Jr. (also a landscapist) between 1890 and 1894. Most likely in response to and consistent with their close association, Eaton’s work reflects the same personal emotional response to nature as Inness’s late works.
Besides oil paintings, Eaton is known for experimental watercolors, pastels, monotypes and early pictorial photography. After 1900, the focus of his work shifted somewhat dramatically and he began painting European cityscapes, as well as more colorful Italian landscapes. (10)
(1) The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1880-1910 (M.H. DeYoung Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1972), p. 4.
(2) William H. Gerdts in Tonalism: An American Experience (Grand Central Art Galleries Art Education Associaiton, 1982), p. 19.
(3) Ralph Sessions in The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism (New York: Spanierman Gallery, LLC, 2005), p. 10.
(4) Published sources on Tonalism and the artists associated with the movement are The Color of Mood: American Tonalism, 1880-1910. San Francisco: M.H. DeYoung Museum and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1972; Tonalism: An American Experience. New York: Grand Central Art Galleries Art Education Association, 1982 and The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism. New York: Spanierman Gallery, LLC, 2005.
(5) Sessions, p. 11.
(6) William Gerdts, “American Tonalism: An Artistic Overview” in The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism. (New York: Spanierman Gallery, LLC, 2005), pp. 16-17.
(7) As quoted in Gerdts, p. 23.
(8) Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., “George Inness and Tonalist Uncertainty,” in The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism. (New York: Spanierman Gallery, LLC, 2005), pp. 36-37.
(9) Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937), (Montclair, NJ: Montclair Art Museum, 1981), p. 3.
(10) Ibid, pp. 8-10.