Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922 

Judith Reeve, My version of Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

As my readers know, Robert Henri conducted intensive research into color palettes and contemporary color theory. But he also studied colored pigments to learn about their archival permanency and whether certain pigments could be mixed without affecting their integrity. Post WW I, artists’ pigments became corrupted with impurities because the war damaged Europe and its industrial complex. America had previously imported many pigments used to manufacture artists’ oil paints from Germany, Holland, and northern Europe. With this infrastructure damaged, artists’ pigments lacked quality. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and George Bellows began an organization to support artists, The League of American Artists. Henri was tasked with studying artist pigments and producing a guide as to the permanency of artists’ oil paints on the market to help artists maintain a high level of material integrity in their work.

In Henri’s Pigment Notebooks, you see Henri looking at the pigment strength, purity, and lightfastnes of the color of, say, ultramarine blue and comparing it across all available brands. Henri also compared material, and chemical analysis by leading experts such as Blockx, Toch, Church, and others including some manufacturers like Winsor & Newton. Henri produced a document for The League of American Artists to be distributed to its members. It was in the style of a workbook in which artists could fill blank pages within the book as they conducted their personal research into their paint and pigments. This book was never published as the League disbanded for unknown reasons, probably financial.

What came out of this research by Henri was the development of a series of palette designs based on his study of pigments both organic and inorganic as well as, new synthetic pigments. Henri referred to these palettes as “The Permanent Palettes” because he was sure of their inherent integrity, and that each pigment could be intermixed on this palette with guarantees as to its archival quality. Henri began this series of palettes around 1920-21. I have reproduced here Henri’s Permanent Palette 1922-E. I chose to work with this palette because Henri synthesized and harmonized the Permanent Palette design over several versions landing on this final palette.

In this Permanent Palette, 1922-E, Henri’s goal was “to build up to color.” He begins on the top row (horizontal) by keeping his tones deep in value and suppressed in intensity. Most colors along this top-line contain some earth pigments with the exception of viridian [third from right], which suppress the chroma. Then in the descending columns, Henri increases the value and the intensity simultaneously in the middle values. Then, as the value increases with the addition of white added to the mixtures, the color loses its intensity. Therefore, the bottom of each column contains colors that are reduced in intensity by adding white, which is a neutralizer. The light tones of VR, BV, and GB, Henri will use as his lighteners (these will be used as substitutes for the raw white). So what you see is a progression from a dark semi-neutralized tone, to a middle value of high intensity followed by a reduction in intensity in the lightest notes. The highest chroma will fall within the halftone range on a portrait. [Note that the above version of this palette, I have replicated from Henri’s notes. I have also added wax medium to this version to suppress the reflection on the pigments. This has slightly lightened the overall value of the palette in this photo reproduction].

Intensity is concentrated in the middle-value range in this palette. Henri’s paintings at this time express color emerging out of a darkened neutrality as in “Bernadita,” 1922. These images seem a throwback to an earlier Henri style and may reflect Henri’s own emotions about the war in Europe. They are reminiscent of his earlier Spanish types. But these new images do not rely on simple blacks and browns as his earlier work had done. Henri imbues this new work with color that simmers below the surface and is not immediately felt. These deeper tones interact with the more intense colors in the middle range through simultaneous contrast- deep complementary tones highlighting the higher chroma areas. These images are experiments that help Henri realize his command of color in the late Irish portraits of children of 1926-28. Henri, in the late portraits, consolodates his color expression and allows color to vibrate on the surface of the canvas and within the viewer’s mind through optical transformations.

Judith Reeve, Color Field of mixes derived from Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

My interest in these “Permanent Palettes” connects to my recent interest in George Inness’ landscapes. There is a prevailing sense of suppressing a portion of the full palette through neutral mixes and allowing other parts to reach full chroma. Combining these opposing levels of intensity creates a dynamic force within the image. By holding this force down, one actually gains in color power. It is an interplay that allows me to understand more clearly, the optical effects achieved through the juxtaposition of the large masses, the power of the neutral, and the movement between color temperature in the modeling of forms.

This type of experimentation opens one up to new ways of working and thinking. Henri’s goal was to engage in each painting moment as a new experience in which the artist brings to bear his whole being, not relying on rote habits of past painting methods.

“Personal experimentation is revealing, and, once you get into it, immensely engaging.”

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p. 60

Inness and an Open Experience

George Inness, “Spring Blossoms, Montclair, New Jersey,” 1891

This week, I went to the Met and saw some of my favorite paintings in the American Collection. This includes Henri’s, “Dutch Girl” and “Mary Fanton Roberts,” Sargent’s, “Egyptian Woman with Earrings,” “Hermit,” and “Cliffs at Deir el Bahri” and Abbott Handerson Thayer’s “Winter, Monadnock” and “Young Woman.” Most of these paintings are in the storage facility of the American Wing, which you can visit, although they are poorly lit. I was down there searching for George Inness’ “Spring Blossoms, Montclair.” I was happy to find that it was upstairs in the gallery on one of the beautifully lit main walls.

“Spring Blossoms” was completed in 1891 and is one of the late landscapes that holds that ‘unity of vision’ both in its composition and its minimalist simplicity of technique. Inness focuses on the middle ground plane where fruit trees bloom, and he gives particular emphasis to a larger tree to the right. The blossoms float above the trunks in a beautiful softness of morning light catching the tops of the trees. There is a shifting of color from the pale yellow of the main tree to soft pink in the intervening trees and ending in a vivid yellow-green tree to the left before reaching a house of pale orange. The sky is a lovely, airy light blue with an upper portion of pink/orange holding the eye downward. The ground plane is surprisingly dark, made with muted greens with orange and darker accents of a neutral tone. A figure loosely rendered in the foreground approaches an ill-defined object of lighter value that is closer still. Both the figure and the moon balance one another.

This painting evokes a poetic meditation. Although it looks out on the world of forms set within a landscape, it calls one to pause and reflect just as the figure is similarly engaged. There is an exposed interiority, a juxtaposition of Inness’ interior life and mine. They are mirrored here, and it is in this space that Inness speaks to me. Inness’ engagement in the act of painting expresses his desire to expand his experience, a limitless possession of freedom that goes beyond this momentary morning in Montclair. Inness shares this fleeting vastness that I too may partake of it. It is analogous to hearing an echo. Inness provides that initial voice, and I listen to it, resounding back at me. It is not as sharp as Inness’ experience, but I can still hear and feel its emotive embrace.

How can Inness say all this with a simple landscape? Inness expresses in his writings that the experience of the eye is vortex-like, meaning the eye looks at the larger masses within a scene and then slowly visually approaches the center. Think of water going down a drain. The outer edges of the whirlpool spin slowly at first, and then the water speeds up toward the center as it approaches the drain. Remember, the eye cannot grasp in detail an entire image. When it looks at the whole, it sees whole relationships but no specific outlines. But on the second pass over the image, the eye hones in on the specificity of the subject and the details in the rendering. To achieve this largeness of effect, one must keep this interplay sustained in the mind providing a more open experience. Leaving the masses loose, details suppressed, areas of obscurity, and elusive, ill-defined forms simultaneously present activates the imagination as the viewer attempts to compose the image for themselves. This engagement with the image mirrors Inness’s engagement with reality and the painter’s struggle to render both the objective truth and the subjective experience.

Viewing Inness’ Spring Blossoms, Montclair, New Jersey, 1891

Inness renders “Spring Blossoms” with a subtle complexity that is not immediately evident. He creates the significant outside edge of the vortex by shifting the upper orange cloud movement to the right while simultaneously, he uses the path to shift the eye from the middle ground forward and to the left. These compositional elements start the whirlpool moving clockwise. He also provides two darks on each side of the middle ground to hold the eye inward. He then leads the eye across the soft colors of the house and blossoms, alternating the orange, yellow-green, pink, and yellow with the crescendo of a high key light yellow in the main tree with a swoop of blossoms on top. We then return down this main tree trunk to the silent figure, loosely rendered approaching an unknown object- a fire? A rock? A creature? Only you can fill that in. We are then held at the center to be rereleased to travel a similar path.

Because Inness suppresses interest in the dark ground plane, we focus toward the middle of the composition. But there is a danger in leaving this foreground area too vague, so Inness adds calligraphic marks of a neutral tone that appear reflexive to keep us engaged so that our viewing of the ground is not too cursory. These marks are intuitively placed like musical notes on a page, and they tap out the rhythm of the visually poetic beats of the brush and help us imagine Inness in the act of painting.

Inness allows for the larger vortex-like movement of the whole to be balanced by the smaller, rhythmic movement of the individual paint strokes. Both kinetic actions reveal the painter present within the limitless feeling of expanse, the object of his deep meditation. Inness invites us to be there with him in that moment that we too may experience that feeling of openness renewing our sense of self and heightening our immersion in the present.