New Addison Exhibition Studies Serenity and Simplicity

A man travels slowly down a dirt path under a murky, blue-grey sky in Dwight Tryon’s 1883 oil painting “Views of South Dartmouth.” Surrounded by a meadow of faded green grass, the man is accompanied by two cows on his journey. The painting’s muted hues convey a sense of serenity that pervades “Dwight Tryon and American Tonalism,” a new exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art that includes “Views of South Dartmouth.”

“Dwight Tryon and American Tonalism” showcases eight of Tryon’s tonalist paintings inspired by South Dartmouth, Mass. Tonalism is an artistic movement that flourished from 1880 to 1915 and used a limited color palette to express the harmonic relationship between humans and nature. In addition to Tryon’s works, the exhibition presents paintings, photographs and etchings by other artists who practiced tonalist techniques. Keith Kauppila, an independent scholar and member of the Addison’s Board of Governors, curated the exhibit.

“[Kauppila] is particularly interested in [Tryon], because Tryon spent every summer for 40 years in South Dartmouth, Mass., which is where [Kauppila] has a house. And so [Kauppila] has done quite a lot of studying on Tryon, and he came to us and said that he was anxious to put together [seven or eight] of … Tryon’s paintings in South Dartmouth,” said Susan Faxon, Associate Director and Curator of Art Before 1950 at the Addison.

Since the Addison does not own any Tryon paintings, Faxon and Kauppila decided to create an exhibition that features Tryon paintings on loan from other institutions alongside tonalist works from the Addison’s permanent collection.

“Everything we do [at the Addison] focuses on the context of the art, the way we see things side-by-side and learning from those juxtapositions and those sequencings,” said Faxon. “This show is a way to share with our audiences not only the few Tryon [paintings], which we borrowed, but also more of our own collection. It’s a way to put the objects from our collection in a slightly different context — a historical context [in which they have not been seen] before.”

“Stilly Night,” a 1917 oil painting, is another one of Tryon’s pieces in the show. Red, brown and yellow shrubs dominate the foreground, creating a scene reminiscent of autumn. A horizontal line of trees serves as a semi-transparent background, allowing viewers to examine the presence of purple and pink shades in the sky. In the center of the sky is a rising moon, illuminating the scene with a steady glow.

“The Tryon paintings in this exhibit are from fairly early in his career: the 1880s. He had just come back from Europe, where he was interested in the Barbizon painters who went out into the landscape and painted what they saw and what they felt. Tryon brought that European viewpoint back, as did others, and created these paintings that are… recording the landscape and… his emotional reaction to the place,” said Faxon.

Tonalist techniques can also be practiced in the medium of photography, as seen in several photographs included in the exhibit. An example of such photos is “IV. Mary Learns to Walk,” by Edward Steichen, which shows an adult bending down to guide a small child who is clothed in a white dress. The pair of figures stand on a path in front of a shining pool of water while a scattering of thinly branched trees stand in the foreground of the work. Coupled with the photo’s hazy tones, the grayscale of the piece creates a serene mood.

“At the turn of the century, there were a number of artists who made a concerted effort to take photographs that had the [same] characteristics [as Tryon’s] paintings… And those principles have very strong connections with tonalism. You call them pictorial photographs, and photographers were doing them at the same time and sharing some of the same impulses as tonalist painters,” said Faxon.

Also featured is a set of 18 etchings by John Henry Twachtman. One of the etchings from circa 1884 is entitled “Venice.” The small piece shows a gondola floating past an arched bridge in a Venetian canal. Beyond the bridge stands a row of barely visible houses and buildings. A large upturned boat lies in the background of the scene, adding mystery to the tranquil waterway setting.

“Most people don’t know that Twachtman did prints. A lot of these [prints] are local, which I think is the nice thing. There are etchings for Bridgeport, Connecticut, Cincinnati and some of them are [of] Newport… So there’s all sort of water and landscape scenes from Europe or these very local New England places,” said Faxon.

“Dwight Tryon and American Tonalism” will be on view until January 4, 2015.