A contemporary critic wrote that the paintings of Charles Warren Eaton appeal to “the dreamers who find in them the undiscovered scenes in which their fancy long has dwelt.” Eaton’s contemplative landscapes exude a spiritual quality that moves the observer into a similar frame of mind. He loved to depict the ethereal light of dawn and dusk in late autumn or winter, usually without any reference to human or animal figures or buildings. These Tonalist paintings, with their subdued palette and relatively intimate scale, marked a definite break with the fading popularity of the panoramic and romantic views of the Hudson River School painters.
Charles Warren Eaton was born in Albany, New York to a family of limited means. He began painting while working in a dry-goods store. At age 22, he enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City and then studied figure painting at the Art Students League. By 1886, he was successful enough to quit his day job and make a living as a landscape painter. That year, he traveled to Europe with fellow Tonalist painters Leonard Ochtman and Ben Foster. In France, Eaton visited popular artist’s spots such as Paris, Fontainebleau and Grez-sur-Loing, and fell in love with the loose brushwork and moody style of French Barbizon painting.
Returning to the United States, Eaton fell under the spell of George Inness, the foremost exponent of Barbizon style in the United States. In 1888, Eaton settled near Inness in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where Eaton lived until his death in 1937. In this period, he painted shadowy and ambiguous landscapes inspired by rural scenery in the northeastern United States. His signature theme was a cropped view of the branches, trunks, and foliage of a pine grove silhouetted against a delicately illuminated sunset or moonlit sky. He painted this vision so often between 1900 and 1910 that he picked up the sobriquet ‘‘The Pine Tree Painter.”
After 1910, Eaton responded to the popularity of Impressionism by using brighter colors and painting sunlit daytime scenes. In 1921, he was hired to paint Glacier Lake, in Glacier National Park by the Great Northern Railroad Company as part of their ‘See America First’ campaign. He produced more than 20 paintings, among the artist's last works, that now poignantly remind viewers of the vast disappearing glaciers. Eaton tended to approach this mountain scenery from an oblique vantage point; he liked to capture small episodes, showing mountaintops nearly obscured by dramatically attenuated screens of fir trees.
Eaton, like many Tonalist artists of his generation such as Henry Ward Ranger, John Francis Murphy, and Charles Melville Dewey, fell into relative anonymity in the mid-twentieth century. However, a resurgence of interest around 1990 has restored his reputation as a pioneer and primary exponent of Tonalism and a painter of intensely serene landscapes that evoke a calm and ambiguous beauty.