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.

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.