What is Luminism in Painting?

Luminism refers to an earlier generation of landscape painters from the late nineteenth century who painted scenes along the Hudson River and the eastern shores.

Out of all the ‘isms’  I believe that Tonalism and Luminism are most closely related.  It is confusing, but there are some recognizable differences between the two.  First of all, the luminist painters preceded the tonalist movement.  But, both popular American art movements were inspired by interaction between sky, water and landscape. 

  Luminism represented specific places realistically
  • Luminist used cool, clear colors
  • Detailed objects modeled by light
  • Unnoticeable brushstrokes
  • Melodramatic, grandiose oversized landscapes
  • Artist wanted to capture the immenseness as they viewed their subject on location
  • Emphasis on nature’s grand scale
  • The American counterpart to Impressionists

The American Luminists, were a group of well know painters including Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), and Frederic E. Church (1826-1900).  Both are favorites of mine.  Their goal was not merely to illustrate nature’s radiance, but also to interpret the landscape with a spiritual meaning. William Keith’s words could apply to this earlier generation: “What a landscape painter wants to render is not the natural landscape, but the state of feeling which the landscape produces in himself.”

Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:  Luminism  It is characteristic of the works of a group of U.S. painters of the late 19th century, influenced by the Hudson River school. Typically landscapes or seascapes, with sky occupying nearly half the composition, luminist works are distinguished by cool, clear colours and meticulously detailed objects modeled by light. The most prominent luminist painters were John Frederick Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Hugh Lane.

For related reading please check out:

The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

How to Bring Out the Mona Lisa in Your Own Artwork


2013-02-22T00:29:46+00:00 February 15th, 2009|Fine Art Tips, General, Misc. Articles|12 Comments


  1. […] painters from the 18th and 19th century had to lug big heavy French easels into the field.  WHAT IS LUMINISM?Pochade boxes have made painting out-of-doors or ‘en plein air’ painting […]

  2. […] atmospheric. Yellow gives the feeling that all is okay with the world.   An example of this is Luminism, an early generation of landscape painters who explored ways to depit light realistically on canvas […]

  3. […] Moran,  painted glorified important Luminist landscapes never had not been seen by most […]

  4. What is Tonalism? | Lori McNee Artist March 14, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    […] art movement. But, when pressed on this issue, the early tonalists most often used the term Luminism. to refer to their approach toward painting. Their view on the landscape was simular but differed […]

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laura Lawson. Laura Lawson said: First learned this technique when I was 14! RT @lorimcneeartist What is luminism in painting? http://bit.ly/9Z8Th4 […]

    • Lori McNee June 18, 2010 at 8:48 am

      It is always good to review what we learned because sometimes we miss something the first time. Hope this article inspired you. Thanks for the RT on Twitter!

  6. […] Moran,  painted glorified important Luminist landscapes never had not been seen by most […]

  7. […] inspired by many of the same forefathers of landscape painting – the Barbizon painters, the Luminists, and the Tonalists. I have always dreamed of attending one of his popular workshops back east, […]

  8. Elric A. Veck May 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Lori: Most of what you say, art-wise, I more than agree with—I applaud—but PLEASE stop propagating the persistent but nonsensical yet-refuses-to-go-away confusion between additive and subtractive color mixing, something you as a practicing artist MUST be aware of! It is not the Yellow-Red-Blue (YRB) but the Yellow-Magenta-Cyan (YMC) “primaries” that you mix pigment paints with, the former relevant for color harmony and the way our eyes perceive color contrasts but NOT the way paints are mixed (subtractively for the most part, with aspects of scattering). Don’t add to the centuries-old color misinformation already out there—you’re too good for that. (I’m an art teacher / color tutor and artist myself and understand the difficulties inherent in color light vs color paint mixing and how the latter is NEVER an easy formulaic teaching, not with metamerism, substrate uncertainty, color as a PERCEPTIONAL phenomenon vs “local color reality,” etc.)

    • Lori McNee June 10, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks for your input about color mixing Elric. I agree with you, and would welcome any guest post you would like to share on the subject of additive and subtractive color mixing. To your point, I have observed that fine artists and many art educators still use the Y-R-B primaries. There is a major difference between mixing of paint/dye colorants and the mixing of lights. I do find ‘color theory’ a complex subject to tackle, and hope you will consider my offer to guest post! You can share any of your own personal links too > https://www.finearttips.com/contact-me/submit-your-guest-article/

  9. Syedur Rahman November 28, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Lori: Elric and I went to Syracuse University in 1975-76. I lost touch with him. Do you have his email address? If so are you willing to share it with me.

    • Lori A McNee May 1, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      I am not sure who Elric is???

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