Charles Warren Eaton will be remembered in American art history as one of the chief members of the Tonalist movement, along with Henry Ward Ranger, Elliott Daingerfield and others who benefited from the lessons of French Barbizon painting and, more immediately, from the example of the poetic style of George Inness.
Unlike others in the Tonalist school, Eaton was late in traveling abroad and never studied there. Born in Albany, New York, he showed little interest in art until his twenties when he came to New York City and began studying at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. He readily absorbed the Barbizon work shown at the Academy as well as paintings by American landscapists.
His studio mate, Leonard Ochtman, was a native Dutchman who no doubt stirred Eaton's interest in Europe. In 1886, he traveled with Ochtman to Grez (near Barbizon), Paris, London, and Holland. Eaton's first mature themes of the 1890s were those of bridges and the neighboring countryside executed in an atmospheric, mood-evoking style with a palette of greens, browns and grays. He chose the romantic town of Bruges, the haystacks along the low-lying Dutch plains as subject matter but carefully selected the time of day (twilight, dusk) and the season (autumn, winter) to coincide with his unique sensibilities.
An important event occurred in 1889. As the story goes, Inness, who had a studio in the same building as Eaton, walked through his open door one day, admired his paintings then stepped back to read the name on the door-plate. He returned the next day, purchased a painting, and initiated a relationship which would remain a source of pride to Eaton.
Like Elliott Daingerfield, Eaton was one of very few younger artists who could claim Inness as a mentor, and he took obvious pleasure in the opportunity to observe directly Inness's personal and impassioned approach to landscape painting. Eaton, in fact, had settled a year earlier in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a town near Inness's home in Montclair.
Around 1900, Eaton discovered the white pine forests of Connecticut near his summer haunts of Thompson and Colebrook. These were his most popular paintings at the National Academy's annuals and he was dubbed "The Pine Tree Painter." Tall, dark pines silhouetted against sunset and moonlit skies became a specialty and firmly established Eaton as an American Tonalist.
His last mature works, around 1910 and thereafter, were a break from this Tonalist mode. Summer trips to Italy in 1910, 1911 and 1912 found him entranced by the hillside villages around Lake Como. His palette of brilliant whites, rich oranges, greens and blues, brightened considerably, due to a new interest in broad daylight. Heavier impasto and choppy brushwork also characterize this late work.
The artist died in New York City in 1937.