Inness’ Unity of Vision

George Inness’ late work speaks of a beauty that is holistic and visionary. These late images tap into a spiritual essence that seeks a connectedness to the natural world that reaches beyond mere fact. Inness was certainly an observer of natural phenomena. Still, his work did not stop there because he felt the artist’s personal vision combined with his interior disposition gave each painting depth and significance. This is the reason we are drawn to a particular artist, because their vision is intuitively attuned to the underlying meaning of forms.

Baudelaire’s idea of “correspondences” focuses on this type of visionary discernment of forms. Forms are evocative and elicit emotions that are personal as well as universal. And it is the artist that perceives this dynamic relationship and uses these forms to render those emotions that are difficult to describe in mere words. The form itself holds a more encompassing and profound meaning of the idea that the artist, then, binds to his personal story to elicit an emotion that speaks to the larger world.

Keats’ “negative capability” hits this interpretation on the mark. Keats reprimands Coleridge for his inability to let mystery stand as it is- a mystery that we can never know in its fullness. Keats advises us to let the mystery be displayed in all its elusiveness. Inness allows forms within his canvases to remain as unknowns or to be merely suggestive, seeking to evoke in the viewer his own intuitive or spiritual connection to the forms, the viewer completing the image by bringing his desires to the forefront.

This sense of open-endedness where the image is not bound forever in a static configuration creates something fluid and dynamic- its meaning shifting as each viewer finds their own way and attaches a personal and more nuanced interpretation. But how is this done? The craftsman within me is asking this question. I have already mentioned leaving certain forms more suggestive. Inness also explains in his writings his idea of “unity of vision.”

“The one condition limiting harmonious impressions received from natural objects reflected upon the retina is distance, it limiting impressions of form and color, the former which characterizes as the latter qualifies objects.”

George Inness lecture to the Boston Art Club, “The Logic of the Real Aesthetically Considered” (April 12, 1875)

In his late work, this idea of distance as the key to understanding the relative importance of objects is what Inness begins to focus on. Harmonious vision is achieved through “limitation” by recognizing that a grasp of “distance unifies perception.”

“What is seen through a space at the distance of 3x’s of its diameter or diagonal, in other words at the distance of its own boundary, is seen in unity.”

Ibid.

This relationship of the eye to the size of the aperture and the distance at which you view the landscape allows one to see all objects with equal distinctness. No one thing takes precedence. Therefore, the eye rests and does not drift over the landscape but can see everything within its path as a unit held together by space and distance. This is, in a technical way, Inness’ “unity of vision” applied practically.

In my next blog, I will demonstrate how to create this cone of vision through a simple viewfinder. I will also show how to use it practically outside plein-air landscape painting.

Robert Henri’s Interest in the Semi-neutrals

When one thinks about the paintings of Robert Henri, one thinks of the vibrancy of his color palette. But Henri’s method was multi-layered. What Henri sought in his images was a balance between high-intensity colors and what he called “grave” colors. Henri felt that the grave colors actually gave the feeling of mystery and “aliveness” to the painting, not the more intense colors which appear relatively flat in their brightness. Henri consistently experimented with these semi-neutrals in the form of Bi colors and Hues. These semi-neutrals act as a foil to the more intense colors revealing their inherent richness through juxtaposition.

When I paint from life, which is my typical way of working, I sometimes wish to find a specific semi-neutral color that is not made by combining a pair of complements. These semi-neutrals can be arranged to mirror the full-intensity colors along the spectrum. What I am looking for, in this case, is a semi-neutral, what Henri called the Bi color, that would fall within the area of a tertiary. The tertiaries along the spectrum are OY-YG-GB-BV-VR-RO. So, I am looking for a tertiary color that is semi-neutralized.

Painting from life, the artist uses many combinations of tertiary mixes. What I have found is that tertiaries that are semi-neutralized are inevitable in my paintings. But instead of feeling my way to these neutralized tertiaries, I have mapped out my understanding of these combinations so I can call them up when I need them without a flurry of indecision or hesitation. Since I am not mixing the high-intensity color first and then lowering its intensity with a neutral or complement, I need to know what combinations of colors along the 12 intervals of the full spectrum will immediately give me my semi-neutralized tertiary.

Arthur Pope, who studied with Denman Ross at Harvard University, studied semi-neutrals and their spectrum relationship. Pope arranges a series of spectrum colors placed against their complement. Each color follows its place along the full spectrum. In this example, Pope begins with V set against its complement, Y . When mixed, V and Y form a neutral(N). Pope then indicates an alternative to this type of mixing by shifting to the near-complement to mix a semi-neutral (center column in small script). This type of diagonal mixing to produce a semi-neutral was Denman Ross’ basic mixing method for most of his set-palettes.

Mixing the near-complement, in this case, is mixing 2 colors at an interval of the 5th. An example: VR is mixed with Y to create a RO semi-neutral color. Mixing the complements to create a total neutral is mixing at an interval of the 6th. Observe how the semi-neutral mixes follow the spectrum by looking at the center column (in small script). Each mixture of a near-complement produces a semi-neutral (primary, secondary or tertiary mix). In the left arrangement, the semi-neutrals descend from a G-YG-Y-OY-O-RO to black. In the right arrangement, the semi-neutrals descend from a R-VR-V-BV-B-GB to black. This is Pope’s Type B Palette (with warm colors at full intensity). The 2 columns, right, and left, display the mix for one near-complement and then the other, available for each color. An example: OY + B (left); OY + V (right). Both B and V are near-complements to OY.

Both Robert Henri and H.G. Maratta understood this principle. Henri applied it in some of his Late Palettes based on the chromatic circle B-O which follows Pope’s diagonal mixing. One thing unique to Maratta, though, was his understanding of intervals between colors. Ross often used regular intervals for each of his numbered palettes (especially before meeting with H.G. Maratta). But Maratta often chose unequal intervals such as his Chord palette designs based on the interval combinations of 3-4-5. It is this 4th interval that I wish to examine here.

An interval of the 4th will produce a series of semi-neutrals if I begin with a tertiary as my root note. If I mix two tertiaries at 4 intervals apart, I will mix a semi-neutral. Here is a chart I have designed to organize my thoughts about mixing the semi-neutrals. Note that the tertiaries appear in a sequence that mirrors their progression along the spectrum. I have repeated the tertiaries in 3 columns to cover all combinations. You will see that each triad is repeated in a different order, but I have kept both as a way to understand the color movement along the spectrum.

I have also grouped them into three’s horizontally. If I mix each horizontal triad of tertiaries, I can produce a complete neutral. An example: The top line is made up of VR-OY-GB. If I examine these colors, I have the three primaries and the three secondaries contained within these colors. This means that when all three colors are mixed, I will produce a complete neutral. This is not a chord but a different kind of color arrangement.

Note also that to create these semi-neutral tertiaries mixes, I am mixing at the 4th interval. If I look at each line in this chart, I find that the semi-neutral obtained from the mixed combinations is the missing tertiary between the two tertiary notes. An Example: VR + OY= RO semi-neutral. The RO naturally appears between the VR tertiary and the OY tertiary. The color skipped is the semi-neutral produced by mixing the VR and the OY. This makes this chart easy to remember.

Robert Henri understood that semi-neutrals could be produced using multiple color combinations. Even within the Chord palettes, sometimes Henri would get a semi-neutral of a RO Bi one way and on the next painting produce a RO Bi with a different set of mixes. A semi-neutral tertiary occurs in some of the chords if the 4th interval begins on a tertiary color. If it begins on a secondary, you will produce one of the Hues. For example, if I take O as my root note and count 4 intervals, I will come to G. O + G = Y Hue.

This chart is my invention, but Henri and Maratta understood its structure. I use this chart, especially when landscape painting, to help me identify which tertiary combinations will give me the semi-neutral that I observe in front of me. These color combinations are optically more interesting than a semi-neutral created from a pair of complements, especially if you allow the tertiaries to be only partially mixed.


On October 16, 2021, I presented at the Robert Henri Museum in Cozad, Nebraska. The conference included the Robert Henri family presenting on managing Henri’s legacy and estate and Valerie Ann Leeds, the foremost art historian on Robert Henri, who presented on Henri’s public persona and the artistic choices that led to his fame. I invite you to watch a video of my presentation The Color Investigations of Robert Henri.