Henri and Denman Ross

Robert Henri - Betalo_ Nude

Denman Ross was a professor of painting and drawing at Harvard University. Henri may have heard of him through H.G. Maratta, a color theorist not unlike Ross himself. In 1912, Ross published a book comprising mainly of his lectures titled, “On Drawing and Painting”. From this book Henri sought out Ross to discuss and determine the nature of his theory on the set palette. This was the beginning of a dynamic relationship in which Henri would experiment in an almost Herculean way with Ross’ system to determine its validity as well as it’s relationship to the theory of Maratta. Henri never pursued anything in a half-hearted way. So for the next several years between 1913- to early 1915 (possibly more sporadically into 1916), Henri painted almost all of his images using the set palettes of Ross which culminates in his painting of a “Betalo Nude” (1916) in the ‘Ruben’s Palette’, Ross’ most complex set palette [Henri’s notes on the Ruben’s palette, Box 25 folder 593 (1918), Beinecke Library, Yale university]. Henri specifically builds a palette called in his notebooks, the ‘Aluminum Palette’ to hold the 144 colors of the entire Ross spectrum palette (George Bellows, who was also experimenting with Ross’ set palettes designs the aluminum palette to fold upon itself for easy transportation).

Ross describes his palette as a “Spectrum Band with Complementaries in Corresponding Values ( The Painter’s Palette, 1919). Like Maratta (in his patent), Ross deals with value by adding white to lighten and black to darken the value of a color, first identifying that particular color’s place within the scale of value. In this image Ross signifies each color’s value place when that color is at full intensity (“On Drawing and Painting”,p.42).

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Ross takes his spectrum band of 12 colors and expands it vertically using white to lighten and expand upward and then using black to expand downward to lower the value. He also varies the intensity horizontally to neutral. But when one begins to paint, one does not use the entire spectrum, but again makes choices to simplify. Here is Palette 13a-13l.

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If you examine this palette you can observe how it shifts the same colors by changing their value relationships. 13a blue is the dominant light; 13b blue violet is the dominant light; 13c violet is the dominant light and so on. As the dominant light shifts the arrangement of colors shift in the same order. One would make the choice of which palette to use based on the dominant color of the light plane in the composition. These palettes also contain direct complements. These complements are not in the same value scale ( In 13a B is the lightest and O is a mid-dark).

This differs from Maratta who was not as obsessed with value when laying out the set palette and Maratta also purposefully avoided direct complements and chose instead ‘near complements’. They also differ in that Ross primarily uses intervals of the 5th to set his palette. Whereas, Maratta varies the intervals (4th, 5th or 6th) through his chord triads. This is the main difference between the two systems, value dependence and intervals.

So what does Henri take away from Ross’ set-palettes? The biggest understanding that Henri gains is that of color temperature. When viewing Henri’s early work prior to Ross there is less temperature variance. Coming out of Ross’ system, Henri comes to a profound understanding about color temperature. He states in the Art Spirit, “Sometimes, is it not better to make a form turn by changing the color value rather than by changing the black and white value?”(p.48) And again, “At times secreted in the appearance of a simple tone there is a gamut of color, a shifting across the spectrum which keeps the thing alive, illusive, and creates the mystery of depth” (p.42). This new understanding bridges Maratta to Ross and allows Henri to super-impose the two.

Henri develops two ideas out of Ross’ theory. First, is the idea of the super-color. When one views a scene, let us say a sunset. One can observe how that color of the sunset effects all objects in the scene. Each object, although it has its own color, takes on the color of the sunset changing its appearance. Therefore, the green tree has a veil of orange over it. The green must needs contain the orange to give the feeling of the setting sun.

Secondly, Henri develops the idea of the lightener. Instead of using white to lighten a color, Henri now creates two light colors that replace the pure white. These lighteners are in two color temperatures- a cool and a warm. An example: BV+W and O+W. So if I needed to lighten toward a warm, I would use the O lightener. And if I wanted to lighten toward a cool, then I would use BV lightener. Or if I wanted more of a neutralization I would use the opposite color temperature. Although Ross mentions both of these ideas in “On Painting and Drawing” ( by describing the color of the light source in the various set palettes), Henri is able to extract them from Ross’ system and add them to Maratta’s, enhancing the effects possible in the Maratta system. Henri after taking Ross’ system to its full potential, simplifies his palette in a highly refined manner that fits his more spontaneous character.

Lastly, Henri comes to an understanding of color intensity. Ross allows each color to find its place of most intensity in the palette and Maratta varies the intensity of each color within the triad to have a hierarchy of color that is expressive and felt intensely in the composition. This becomes the core of Henri’s next exploration into color. From 1915-1917, Henri studies the nature of intensity and its effects on an image.

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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