ANNAPOLIS - Folks at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College have taken no extra measures to ensure quiet for the current exhibit. They have posted no "Quiet, please" signs at the entrance nor printed a special notice in the brochures for this show of American landscapes, most made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Something of the sort might have been in order, given the fact that the work on view until Feb. 23 speaks softly and carries no noisy American metaphors.
The colors are mostly muted, the human figure is largely absent, the scenes themselves not especially dramatic, the effect less expansive than introspective.
One of the finest pieces in the show, "A Spring Morning Near Montclair," painted by George Inness in 1892, makes a good example. The subject is nothing more than a green field under soft sky with a tree and shimmering stream at middle and foreground.
With Inness' uncanny gift for seizing a fugitive moment of light and time in the act of slipping off, the scene evokes ephemeral life experience. The painting is less depiction than poetic meditation.
Ralph Blakelock goes a step further in moodiness with canvases done around 1880. With his brooding trees and spooky moonlight, Blakelock's paintings suggest not only the mystery of nature but also the turmoil of his own emotional life.
"The word intimate is one I like a lot in relation to these works," says Laurel Spencer Forsythe, curator of the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wis., the collection that owns the work. "That very personal relationship of the artist to the landscape and to nature is very much a part of this."
Measured by place and time, many artists in this show would be American and approaching modern; by other standards they remain apart, marching to a different, muffled beat.
At the threshold of the 20th century, before art history became a parade of "isms," this way of painting practiced by such artists as Inness, Blakelock, Henry Ward Ranger, Dwight W. Tryon, J. Francis Murphy and Bruce Crane became known as tonalism.
The term was apparently first used in connection with an exhibition in New York in 1896, and derives in part from the way the work emphasizes mood over precise depiction and for the use of colored, or toned canvas underpainting, which tends to mute color applied over it.
There was nothing new about underpainting, as artists had been using it since the Renaissance. But the practice set the tonalists apart from the chief artistic agitators of the mid-to-late 19th century, the Impressionists, who were hot in pursuit of the freshest depictions of light they could create on canvas. In that sense, as Kevin J. Avery, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has written, tonalism was "one of the swan songs of nineteenth-century academicism."
If you've taken an art history course or two, you recognize academicism as a bad word, vaguely tied to associations of elitist stuffed shirts deeply committed to the status quo.
But there the tonalists complicate matters. They resist a simple category. Historically, they pull in more than one direction.
True, Inness sounded like an utter fogey in a letter he most likely wrote in the late 1880s when he referred to Impressionism as a "passing fad ... the followers of which pretend to study from nature and paint it as it is. All these sorts of things I am down on. I will have nothing to do with them. They are shams."
In light of his comment on Impressionism, Inness appears reactionary. Then you look at his work next to much of the American landscape painting that was popular in his day and he looks rather subversive, a moody poet in the midst of a Fourth of July picnic.His potent presence, Avery says, probably made it possible for tonalism to emerge as a cogent if unsung entity, even though the name tonalism was not used until two years after his death in 1894.
Inness and his fellow tonalists painted American landscape in a way that did not partake of particularly American notions about what the landscape represented.
Remember that when the tonalist artists were born, the frontier was still a going project. The splendor of the American landscape was taken as evidence of God's blessing upon the advance of Christian community across the fruited plains. Landscape painting, as art historian Barbara Novak has written, was conducted amid an "all-pervasive nationalism that identified America's destiny with the American landscape."
Hence, a tendency toward grand gesture and manifest confidence: the soaring Rockies of Albert Bierstadt, the awesome Niagara of Frederic Edwin Church, the sublime Hudson River Valley views of Asher B. Durand.