Robert Henri, “Lilly Cow”, 1915
In 1915, Henri and his artist friends met in Charles Winter’s studio to experiment with color. Attending were H.G. Maratta, John Sloan, George Bellows, Randall Davey and, of course, Henri and Winter. This group would meet periodically when a member artist felt that they had come upon an insight into color, theoretical or practical, or the set palette (which each was experimenting with individually). It must be noted also, that Maratta’s knowledge was sought after by the group who desired to practically apply his theories.
This day, they came to discuss pigments and their inherent intensity in their pure state. Henri, along with the others, produced a chart giving each pigment, in its pure state, a place along a scale of intensity between 3 and 13. 13 being the highest intensity and 3 being the lowest intensity with two scales below that range 1 (Hues that approach a neutral) and S (which combines a Hue with a Color to achieve what Henri notes at the bottom of the page: “The mixtures indicated for the 1 and S lines were those which seemed the most practical”).
Henri notes in his journal that, “the fixing of the higher intensity of each color was difficult. It was rather surprising that YG should be thought of as the most intense. There evidently was some confounding of value with intensity. Evidence of this may be found in the great step between P and YG. This P while very dark proved itself to be a very powerful (intense) pigment when mixed with white.” (Notebook: Artists’ Pigments I, folder 19, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Here is a brief indication of the chart which has been reproduced in William Innes Homer’s book, “Henri and His Circle”, page 188:
11 G GB OY Y G
9 R RO O
7 B BP PR Below each color the intensity descends to S
3 B hue P hue
1 All the Hues for each color
S Hue+complementary color for each color
The original chart is easier to see the relationships (I cannot reproduce it here without permission from Yale). So please refer to Homer, page 188. Henri, subsequently, went on to produce many charts for different paintings, creating a scale of intensity for that particular image or series of images. So in one image Y may be the most intense and in another O or GB. So although the chart above indicates a pigments intensity right from the tube, it is not the only scale on which to create a palette.
What is interesting about this new approach is that the notes for a palette are chosen on a diagonal (one never uses the entire palette in an image). This diagonal form maintains that when there is a change in color, there is also a change in intensity. Therefore, each color occupies a specific intensity. Henri states, “For instance, take Y- to move from Y to OY will not be a horizontal move- as OY (9),Y (9) but with Y (9) and OY (7). If the next step is to O that O could be moved to (9) or of course move further down- or up( if possible) in the scale of intensities.” (Notebook: Artists’ Pigments, folder 19). So if Y is at (9) intensity, the next colors along the spectrum on either side are not at a (9) scale of intensity, but are of a higher (11) or lower (7) scale of intensity.
This idea can easily be interwoven into Maratta’s approach. Maratta being in Winter’s studio as part of the experimentation is telling. Marratta may have had the most insight into how intensity can dominate. Chords in the Maratta system inherently create a hierarchy of intensity. The dominant color of the chord stays near its full intensity within an image while simultaneously, floating amidst a series of colors that are less intense (bi colors and hues). This is what gives chords their feeling of luminosity.
This chart becomes for Henri a point of experimentation over the next couple of years. Henri moves away from strict chord relationships (Maratta) to one where a hierarchy of intensity within the composition of a painting begins to preoccupy him. One can observe this in the paintings themselves from this period. They become largely about pushing color intensity to the point where spacial depth becomes shallower through large areas of the background being occupied by intense colors applied in a flat manner. An example of this is another version of “Lilly Cow”. Henri takes this course to its inevitable end where form borders on abstraction. Henri, who loved the beauty of form, backs away from this precipice.
These years of experimentation with color intensity informs Henri’s work until his last years. Although, he abandons color intensity at its extreme end, he maintains the hierarchy of intensity as set by Maratta through his system of musical chords. By 1916, Henri has integrated his new understanding of color intensity into Maratta’s chord system. But now Henri has become a master of color in all of its aspects while simultaneously maintaining his love of form. Henri always returns to his central pursuit- the constant search for true expression of soul in his portraits which he referred to as “My People.” Color intensity has now amplified that expression.