Color Practice: Similarities between Henri and Delacroix

Finding similar approaches to the use of color in the works of Robert Henri and Eugène Delacroix.


“At times secreted in the appearance of a single tone there is a gamut of color, a shifting across the spectrum which keeps the thing alive, illusive, and creates the mystery of depth.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 42)

As I wrote in my previous blog post, both Delacroix and Henri approached the study of natural phenomena and its application to their work in a similar fashion. Both drew forth from observation a theoretical approach to color that lead Eugène Delacroix to the double triangle and theory of simultaneous contrast and lead Henri to the spectrum palette.  Both were fascinated by color’s capacity to captivate and sought to harness its power in their images. In this blog post, I would like to compare Henri’s and Delacroix’s similarities of approach to color through the technical means they applied to their work in paint. This goes beyond the theories that they created and analyzed and brings it to a practical level. Theory has very little significance if it cannot be practically applied in the arts. Although there are many comparisons that I can make between these two artists, I will focus on four similarities in regards to their color practice.

If one examines Henri’s and Delacroix’s approach to laying-in a painting, one can observe a similar process in the initial steps. Both focused on finding the color key as well as lowering the value initially: “I said to myself: this is the way to lay-in a picture- that is to say in a key which, although rather below its value in light, is sufficiently intense to establish the color areas in their right relationship- then later, on top of this, to let oneself go, putting in lights and accents with all the fancy and verve one can command.” (Eugene Delacroix, Journal, p.144) For Henri, establishing the key of an image resided in establishing the set palette to be used for each subject, “It should be well understood that the principle of this form of set-palette is that a totally new palette is organized and set for each subject (establishing the chord which acts as the key). (AS, p.37) I am ready to say that with the palette carefully built on this principle, the foundation of a picture that is to be a brilliant and forceful statement in color…may be laid, and after the first lay-in with this palette, the palette may be augmented…with additional divisions of color and value, to vitalize and complete the work…” (AS, p.36). During the lay-in, keeping the values lower initially is repeated by Henri, “In a painting of light, in modeling form, keep as deep down in color as you can. It is color that makes the sensation of light.” (AS, p.61)

Delacroix and Henri also express that the lay-in must deal primarily with the color masses. Delacroix expresses this as such, “A picture should be laid-in as if one were looking at a subject on a grey day, with no sunlight or clear-cut shadows. Fundamentally, lights and shadows do not exist. Every object presents a color-mass, having reflections on all sides. Suppose a ray of sunshine would suddenly light up the objects in this open-air scene under grey light, you will then have what are called lights and shadows but they will be pure accidents. This, strange as it may appear, is a profound truth and contains the whole meaning of color in painting.” ( Journal, p.163) Likewise, Henri charges his students to do the same, “Now, all of the areas of the subject having their correspondence in color, value and quantity on the palette…The palette already looks like the subject and the student will be able to proceed to lay these colors on the areas for which they were intended with a greater attention to their shapes, their drawing power, their fullness and purity as pigments…” (AS, p.35) And again, “Hold to this principle that the greatest drawing, the greatest expression, the greatest completion, the sense of all contained, lies in what can be done through the larger masses and the larger gestures.” (AS, p.27)

Both artists believed in the inter-play between the cool and the warm colors to achieve a greater feeling of form and unity of composition. Because color was a primary concern for both, this interplay of color temperature takes precedence over black and white value. Henri reflects, “Sometimes, is it not better to make a form turn by changing the color value rather than by changing the black and white value?” (AS, p. 48) “The effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors…” (AS, p. 57) Delacroix, who observed similar color temperature effects in figurative studies of Rubens in the Louvre, verifies the excellency of using this effect in one’s work, “Although the light and shadow were almost the same value, the cold tones of the light and the warm tones of the shadow were enough to give accent to the whole….it requires very little effort to produce an effect in this way. It occurs very frequently, especially out of doors.” (Journal, p.83)

Another effect that both artists took note of and applied consciously to their work was the idea of a super color, that is a dominant color that envelopes all the other colors and manifests the color of the light source. Henri reflects, “There is a color over all colors which unites them and which is more important than the individual colors…It is this super color- this color of the whole…At sunset the sun glows. The color of the grasses, figures, and houses may be lighter or darker or different, but over each there is the sunset glow.” (AS, p. 58) Although Henri describes an extreme condition of the super-color, Delacroix searches for the same cohesion that the super-color produces, “When we look at the objects around us, whether in a landscape or an interior, we notice that between each of them there is a kind of connection produced by the surrounding envelope of air and the various reflections which, as it were, cause each separate object to be part of a general harmony… this essential harmony that establishes in a painting a unity which lines alone would be unable to create.” (Journal, p.371)

Both Delacroix’s and Henri’s color practice presents much to meditate on. They were both theorists, observers of life and highly intuitive individuals dependent on the power of the imagination to organize all of these separate elements. Integral to both, they had faith in the supremacy of the artists intuition to unravel the things of nature and open up a path for the imaginative instinct to prevail. It is this imaginative instinct that captivates us and holds us bound to recognize the beauty inherent in their work.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

2 thoughts on “Color Practice: Similarities between Henri and Delacroix”

  1. I’m so excited to have come across your website. After not painting for about 30 years, I recently began oil painting once again. Many years ago, after finding that I am a descendant of Robert Henri (2nd cousin 4x removed), I have had a keen interest in his artwork. Your website is most informative! Thank you!

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