This past week, I went again to the Metropolitan, NYC, to see the George Bellows show. One thing that struck me this time was not only the beautiful sense of color in the paintings, but how there is an all-pervading neutral that underlies the brilliant flourishes of color. This neutral that takes up a large portion of the canvas acts as the base on which more pure colors can be shown to their full advantage.
But when I use the term neutral color, I am not referring to a true neutral, that is a color achieved by combining the complementary colors. What I am referring to is a hue that contains very low chroma. Bellows, following the lead of his mentor, Robert Henri, used a system of color theory developed by H.G. Maratta. Within this color system, there is a set of colors, referred to as hues, that are true colors of a very low chroma. These hues are created by combining, not the complements, but the secondary colors to achieve a low chroma of a primary. An example: One can achieve a blue in a low chroma by the combination of Violet + Green = Blue Hue. I can get a very beautiful low chroma blue by mixing Manganese blue violet + Viridian or (Ultramarine blue + Chinese Vermillion) + Viridian. Both combinations can give one a beautiful, subdued blue. I noticed Bellows used this color in “North River, 1908″ and “Snow Dumpers, 1911”.
To achieve the other primaries of low chroma: Red Hue is mixed by combining Orange + Violet. I have mixed a good low chroma red by the combination of (Chinese Vermillion + Aurelian Yellow) + Manganese Blue Violet. Bellows uses this red hue quite extensively in “Excavation at Night, 1908” to his “Men of the Docks, 1912”.
Yellow Hue is achieved by the combination of Orange + Green (note that this color comes quite close to yellow ochre/ raw sienna, but because it is made with stronger pigments than the earth tones it is much more powerful and is more related to its surrounding colors by containing them within itself). A good combination is (Chinese Vermillion + Aurelian Yellow) + Viridian. Bellows uses this low chroma yellow in almost every snow painting along the Hudson. It is used for all the leafless trees and bushes, mud and rocks etc. such as “A Morning Snow” (shown at the top), “Up the Hudson”, “Rain on the River” and “Winter Afternoon”. On this neutrality, Bellows places the brilliant blues, true yellows of the illuminated snow and the reds and oranges of illuminated bushes onto this base.
Another thing that struck me about Bellows’ paintings relates to Henri’s idea of the “super-color” which he elaborates on in the Art Spirit. Bellows, in his landscapes most especially, takes this to heart. When one looks at one of the snow scenes, one really feels the color of the light. The color of the light source is the super-color. If we imagine a sunset, that sunset illuminates a landscape with a warm red-orange color. It is why we enjoy sunsets so much- they give us a surprising view of something by transforming an ordinary tree into a flaming red torch. Bellows lays this super-color over the low chroma hues to achieve added brilliance. He also allows for these lower chroma hues to share in the super-color (If the light is primarily of a yellow color, Bellows will use a yellow hue to emphasize this super-color as well) We look at his paintings and feel we have quite an extraordinary view of the scene.
This “balance” of color between what is a more pure color with a color of lower chroma is extremely hard to achieve. But in a sense, we can only experience the brilliancy of color when it is shown against something more neutralized. A painting is its own world and it is only through these type of visual comparisons within the confines of the canvas, that we can experience a revelation.