Tonalism: Leon Dabo

2 Feb

Leon Dabo, The Seashore (1900)

Note: click on any image to enlarge

In my last post I featured the work of the great Hudson River School artist Sanford Robinson Gifford, who was one of the great Luminists — an artistic movement interested in moody atmospheric effects such as mist and fog.  My research into Gifford and Luminism reminded me of another late-19th-Century  artistic movement: Tonalism.

Like the Luminists, Tonalists painted landscapes with an overall feeling of dreaminess or mistiness; the style emphasizes neutral hues in gray, blue and brown and can often have an ethereal, almost ghostly quality.  One of the most famous painters in this style is James McNeill Whistler.

Tonalism, in turn, is associated with Symbolism, another late-19th-Century artistic movement, which is focused on mythological and dream imagery.  The symbols used by Symbolist painters were not the traditional, time-honored  symbols of iconography, but personal, idiosyncratic and often obscure references.  Symbolism is complex and multi-faceted and it would be easy to over-simplify.  Symbolist art draws from diverse  sources and is tied in with the late-19th-Century fascination with Spiritism and psychoanalysis — think of Gothic Romanticism, Edgar Allen Poe and Sigmund Freud.  In modern fiction Peter Straub’s Ghost Story has a very Symbolist feel.

Leon Dabo (1909)

Leon Dabo (1864-1960) was an American Tonalist artist perhaps best known for his landscapes of the Hudson River Valley in New York.  He studied under James McNeill Whistler and doubtless absorbed a great many Tonalist-Symbolist ideas and methods in the process.

Like the Hudson River School artists, Dabo conveys in his landscapes a feeling of spaciousness, with an emphasis on atmospheric effect.  But Dabo carries the effect further.  When Sanford Robinson Gifford depicts the Catskill Mountains in October in the Catskills (see prior Art Out The Wazoo blog post) there is a mythic quality to the landscape but we are still firmly tied to Earth.  In Dabo’s Silver Light, Hudson River (below) we might be tied to Earth — but then again we might not.

Dabo was also attracted to the design simplicity of Asian art.  This is evident in his landscapes and is quite apparent in his still lifes, such as Still Life With Flowers (below).

Leon Dabo, Evening on the Hudson (1909)

Leon Dabo, Silver Light, Hudson River (1911)

Leon Dabo, Still Life With Flowers (date unknown)

By the turn of the century Dabo was dividing his time between Europe and the United States.  He participated in the Exhibition of American Artists, the show promoted by members of the so-called Ashcan School (or “The Eight”) led by Robert Henri.

Dabo was later  a principal organizer of the famous International Exhibition of Modern Art,  the then-radical modernist art exhibition more commonly known as the Armory Show of 1913.  With his contacts in both Europe and the United States Dabo was ideally suited to organizing the Armory Show, and he hosted several of the earliest meetings in his studio.  After the Armory Show Dabo lived for nearly another fifty years, actively painting into his nineties.

Leon Dabo, Fog and Mist (date unknown)

Leon Dabo, Along the Lake (date unknown)

Dabo’s works have a mysterious, otherworldly quality that is quite striking.  If you’re a fan, as I am, of ghost stories and Gothic novels, you will most likely be captivated by Dabo’s work.  I hope you enjoy his paintings as much as I do.

Leon Dabo, On the Hillside (date unknown)

Leon Dabo, Hudson River (1918)

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2 Responses to “Tonalism: Leon Dabo”

  1. Paul Gallagher February 19, 2013 at 4:52 am #

    The date on the piece “On the Hillside is written ont the front left 1916. Also “Along the Lake” is dated 1912 it was from the estate of Willian Van Horne.

    Stillwell House Fine Art and Antiques

    • bobbalouie February 19, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      Thank you!

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