Creating Harmonics within a Chord

Robert Henri (American, 1865-1929) : The Little Dancer, 1916-18. Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.

Henri’s use of the Maratta “Spectrum Palette” morphs and develops over the course of his career. Henri constantly investigated the scientific basis of the nature of color from Delacroix to Chevreul to Denman Ross as well as Maratta’s constantly evolving investigations. Add to this his own personal experimentation into color and one has a sense of the complexity of his pursuits.

In Henri’s notes of March 1,1919 (Henri has already worked with the spectrum palette for 10 years) he takes a chord and expands upon it in a new way. He shapes the expression of the chord by selecting one color or a section of the chord to take precedence. Henri first takes the chord PR-OY-B which includes the Bi colors of RObi, Gbi, BP. He expands this to 12 colors, creating the new spectrum palette that this chord produces, and mixes them on the palette. This includes the inter-mixtures between the colors including the Bi colors. So the palette looks like this:


(The lowercase letters are the inter-mixtures between the colors of original chord)

Now that he has the palette set, Henri decides that he wishes to emphasize the OY and the PR. If we look at the palette lay-out, Henri is emphasizing the warm end of the palette between PR and OY. The page reads as such:

(PR)      (OY)      (PR+OY)

R            Y           O

Rbi         Ybi         Obi

Rh          Yh         Oh

So one can observe, as an example, that the R color moves from an intense warm in a lighter value to Rh, a neutralized cool in a lower value. This seems useful because one can take the primaries of the chord and see them in several different values, color temperatures and intensities. This seems to accentuate the quality of the chord. It also allows Henri to use the colors without excessive mixing. He can lay down the color of say, O and give it variety in value and temperature by laying down the Obi and Oh to shape the form. These colors are in a harmonious relationship already and laying them down as such allows for that harmony to be made evident on the canvas.

Another aspect to this is that the dominant color of the chord begins to penetrate every aspect of the composition. The lighter value, intense, warm color of the chord comes forward, let us say, as a carnation on the face. Then, let us say, that the Bi color which is of a middle value and slightly less intense and cooler occupies an article of clothing or a chair. Then, let us say, the hue occupies the background being the darkest value, least intense and the coolest. This arrangement allows a single color to find its place throughout the image and intensify one’s sensation of that color.

Musically, this feels like harmonics. The dominant color creates vibrations throughout the canvas and re-emphasizes the chord. The only concern with the addition of more colors added to the chord, is that one does not want to lose the character of the chord.

Further reading on this subject can be found in “Radiating Intensities” and “Spectrum Color Recession“.

Please note that the image of “The Little Dancer” is not in this chord but was painted around the same period as the entry, March 1, 1919 and has similar qualities.

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.

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