Dwight Tryon – Tonalism

Dwight W. Tryon. Morning Off Narragansett Pier, 1881. Watercolor on paper. Bequest of Esther Van Cleef Wood, 1986.64

Dwight Tryon was a born New Englander who painted the region with knowing confidence. In this picture of Rhode Island Sound, he included a lone boater sailing out to sea, perhaps to start a day of fishing. The tiny figure is dwarfed by nature, yielding a contemplative, melancholy mood.

Tryon rarely painted in watercolor, yet he put impressive finesse into this work. He used a limited number of marks and colors—just a few whites, grays, and blues, plus the light brown of the paper itself—but suggested a stunning range of detail. Sunlight streams down onto the distant horizon, while clear water washes over the rocky shore in the foreground. By showing so much with so little, Tryon heightened the dreamy quality of his picture.

What do you think that Tryon’s sailor would have thought of this scene? Would they have paused to consider the poetic qualities of the water, the sky, and the sunlight? Was this just a regular morning as they headed out to work?

Tryon loved rural life in New England and spent much of his time sailing and fishing. He bought his clothes with durability as a top priority, purchasing them from a country store where his fellow shoppers were farmers and sailors. As a rule, he avoided going anyplace where he couldn’t wear his rubber boots to the table. Though he spent time living in New York City, one of his favorite activities there was crafting model ships and racing them in Central Park. However, these countrified sensibilities did not dissuade members of high society from enjoying Tryon’s paintings. The wealthy and refined Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer, for example, became the artist’s most important financial supporter, and also one of Tryon’s closest friends.

Among art historians, Tryon is known as a central practitioner of a painting style called Tonalism, which flourished in the United States from around 1880 through the first decade of the twentieth century. The art historian Wanda Corn defined Tonalism 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.” With its economical use of color and wistful atmosphere, Morning Off Narragansett Pier certainly fits this description.