Henri and the Legacy of Delacroix

Asserting that Robert Henri is the natural inheritor of Eugène Delacroix’s modernism which relies on natural phenomena to support the work of the imagination.

Leon Riesener by Delacroix
Leon Riesener by Delacroix
Edna Smith by Henri
Edna Smith by Henri

 “I might mention in passing that never have I seen a palette as meticulously and delicately prepared as that of Delacroix. It was like an expertly- matched bouquet of flowers.” (Baudelaire, The Life and Work of Eugene Delacroix, p.48)

One does not usually see these two names linked together which is a shame. Henri is the natural inheritor of Eugène Delacroix’s modernism. There are many aspects of Delacroix’s thoughts, writings and artistic practice that Henri adopted. These include Delacroix’s personal investigations into color theory and his analysis of observable color phenomena as well as, his sense of the requirements of image. There is also, an intellectual inheritance through the writings of Delacroix himself, Charles Baudelaire’s work on the Life and Work of Eugene Delacroix and Alexander Dumas’ Lecture on Delacroix 1864. And both were primarily figurative artists who also wrote extensively for the public.

If one looks at Delacroix’s investigation into color, one can see the same intensity that Henri exhibited. Baudelaire states,

“Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, and coldly determined to seek the means of expressing it in the most visible way… An immense passion reinforced with a formidable will.” (Ibid, p.46)

This quote could almost be used to describe Henri himself. Both artists intently sought color as a powerful tool to evoke emotion in their work. And they sought to uncover the workings of color through the observation of natural phenomena. Delacroix describes an incident he observed while at work on the murals of Saint-Sulpice,

“I observed the same thing the day before yesterday in the Place Saint-Sulpice, where a small urchin had climbed up one of the statues of the fountain in full sunlight: dull orange in the lights, the most brilliant violets for the transitional passages into the shadow, and golden reflections in the shadows thrown up from the ground. The orange and the violet were alternatively predominant or else were mixed together… When a man puts his head out of a window he looks quite different from what he does inside a room; hence the futility of making studies in a studio, you deliberately set yourself to render that false color.”(Paris, 7 September, 1856, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, p.341)

Palette of Eugene Delacroix
Palette of Eugene Delacroix

This aspect of taking one’s experience of the natural world and finding a way to express such phenomena in paint is at the heart of both Henri and Delacroix’s artistic practice. But simultaneously, they both sought to formulate this experience theoretically.

Delacroix developed a color diagram that took into account the effect of complementary colors on one another (simultaneous contrast). It is called the double triangle. The first triangle stands on its base with the primary colors of red, blue and yellow at the vertices. The second triangle stands on its apex and has the secondary colors of orange, green and violet at its vertices. The triangles then interlock, super-imposed on each other with the complements opposite one another. Dumas verifies that Delacroix developed this theory prior to Eugene Chevreul and in fact, Chevreul takes his main theory of simultaneous contrast of colors from Delacroix himself (They met for many years, Delacroix exchanging his ideas and personal investigations on the matter).

This relationship between Delacroix and Chevreul mirrors Henri’s relationship to H.G. Maratta, an artist turned color theorist. Henri was primed for this meeting after spending 7 years studying and working in Paris. Maratta brought to Henri an understanding of Chevreul’s work as well as that of Nicholas Ogden Rood who published similar findings in his book, “Modern Chromatics”. Their relationship was two-fold. Maratta brought new insight into color to Henri, but Henri also, because of the intensity of his research, transformed Maratta’s color theory to suit his personal investigations as well as guide his sense of image. Sometimes Maratta would visit Henri’s studio on a daily basis, where Henri would mix paint and Maratta would discuss color relationships. Maratta’s theories contained original material built on the color legacy from the past as well as, what were present-day investigations in the early 1900’s.

Henri’s voracious experimentation lead him down many avenues from Maratta’s chords to Denman Ross’ value and color temperature palettes to Dudeen’s triangular palettes to the permanent palette, the natural palette, the aluminum palette, Charles Winter intensities palettes, and the contrast of complements palettes. This is just a sample of Henri’s ardor for color investigation. But Delacroix is the initial force and energy behind this push for color understanding. Baudelaire reflects,

“ The poet- that is, the creative artist, whatever his medium- is thus a double man who both feels and analyses his feelings; and the movement of his critical thought will be powered by the same central force which is also behind his creation.”(Introduction by Jonathan Mayne, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire, p.x)

Henri is the natural inheritor of Delacroix’s modernism which relies on natural phenomena to support the work of the imagination.

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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