George Bellows – Colorist

Anyone who is truly interested in American art, must see the retrospective of George Bellows work presently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you are a painter, seeing the masterly beauty of the work- from the sensuous brushstrokes to the intensity of color to the power of image -it is awesome and profound. Recently, I saw the exhibit of Robert Henri’s Irish portraits at the Everson Museum. And seeing this show close upon the heels of that magnificent show, I have gained a renewed hope of the possibilities for American painting and its future.

I feel there was such an important moment in American painting before the Armory show. American painting was strong, well crafted and modern and this was supplanted by the European Modernists arriving on the shores of America. And the profound impact that American painting could have had was undercut by the “new”, which was not directly part of our own experience as a nation. We are the children of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, of Melville and Hawthorn, of Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe. We are the Mythic Individualist against the backdrop of the Sublime, of Nature, seeking our existential raison d et. We are not Europeans although our roots spring from those nations.

Bellows was full of confidence much like Henri. Their willingness to take on the modern world in paint is profound. They did not shrink away from intense experimentation, primarily with color theories but also with compositional theories. In this way, they combined scientific knowledge with creative impulse. This certainly reflects Da Vinci’s call for the artist to embrace truth in all its manifestations- scientific as well as through experience and observation.

Having done significant research into Henri’s color theory, I was well prepared to see it in the paintings of Bellows. Bellow’s studied with Henri as well as became a close and dear friend. Henri imparted to this gifted student all that he knew and all that he was presently experimenting with. Henri infected Bellows with the same desire to tackle color in a new way. In 1909 Henri met a colorist named H.G. Maratta. Maratta developed an artist’s palette that related to the keys of a piano. This was not a new theory, but Maratta made it practical and viable for an artist to create color combinations that directly related to chords in music. Bellows is quoted in the catalog as saying he used “…a paint piano” to achieve the vitality of color in his work. But little else is said of Bellows’ complex system of composition or color theory. The last essay in the catalogue is “The Record Books of George Bellows: A Visual Diary” by Glenn Peck. In regard to Bellows’ color Peck writes,

“The annotations of color choices in the record book read much like a musical score. In Rowboat (1916), for example, has the following color chord: BP(p), OYG(p), GBB(p), RO(5), RP(5), YG(5), G(5), GB(5), B(s-3), RP(1). Evidentaly the capital letters stand for the colors blue, purple, orange, yellow, green, red, but the superscript notations are all but impossible to decipher. Still, they give us great insight into how he viewed the spectrum of colors that embodied his work.” (Ibid.,p.301)

If Bellows lacked detailed notes in his own record book, Peck should have looked in the archive of Henri, his mentor.  Henri was a prodigious note taker. He shows himself as the serious educator he was through the thoroughness of these notes. He inwardly hoped that they would be preserved and provide a record for future artists to examine. There is no doubt that both Bellows and Henri shared their research into color theories as evidenced by their paintings as well as their correspondence.

It did not take me long, looking through my notes, to locate the correct reference. Rowboat was painted in 1916. So I looked in the year 1915 and 1916 to find the relationship between the theories that Henri was experimenting with and the notes for Bellow’s painting. In 1915, the artists: Charles Winter, H.G. Maratta, John Sloan, Bellows, Randall Davey and Henri met in Winter’s studio and developed,collectively ,a color chart that dealt with color intensities. So if we look at the superscript numbering in the preceding quote, we see: p, 5, s, 3, 1. These refer to the intensity of a particular color in its pure state. The scale ran from most intense at 13 to least intense at 1. Although, Henri notes that the most practical colors were at the bottom of of the chart refereed to as 1 and s (these contained a combination of colors (Maratta colors from the spectrum palette) and hues. The p superscript might refer to the term practical that Henri uses to describe the most flexible colors. [ This chart was previously published by Michael Quick for The Paintings of George Bellows,1992]

Henri notes Dec.19, 1915, a palette in the key of Y (yellow) and that the purpose of such a palette is to avoid complements in the same intensity. Henri used this palette for his painting, “Mrs. H.P. Whitney”. Henri notes again on April 3, 1916 below a palette in the key of OY, that this palette was ,”made up of notes which are ‘half-complements’ as for instance it is possible to play RO in a high intensity against Y in a low intensity or RO in a high intensity against P in a low intensity…The idea of the palette is to play these “half- complements” against each other as much as possible in the picture.” (Robert Henri Archive, Folder 590, Box 25).

When looking at the painting, Rowboat, one can observe that it seems to rely on the greens. Since the greens are emphasized in the notes, I believe it was painted in the key of G. The color moves in both directions away from the G: YG, G, GB, GBB, B. G is in 5 so the half-complements of BP(p) and RP(1) are in other intensities following the goal of this type of palette.[Note that the complement of G is R so the half-complement is on either side of that color on the spectrum palette, that being RP and RO.]

It is important to honor both Henri and Bellows obsession with theories. It speaks of their time as well as our own. An artist is no longer someone who shows us the beauty before our eyes, either in the miraculous or the everyday, but the artist must also show us the underlying depth of the experience- its spiritual magnitude as well as one’s intuitive connection to phenomena (color being optical). The modern artist moves freely between these two poles, uniting all that was past to this new experience of existence. The apex of which will be a total change in our experience of the world and where man will find the meaning to live as an individual and also as a representative of the soul of the world (Jung).

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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