Robert Henri, a Study, and the Triangular Palette

Robert Henri, “Hand Study”, in the collection of Les and Sue Fox. Presently displayed at the Robert Henri Museum in Cozad, Nebraska.

Just prior to the pandemic lock down, I received a visit from Les and Sue Fox. They own a paint study of a hand thought to have been painted by Robert Henri. This “Hand Study” is beautifully painted and in excellent condition. On the back is a label with Henri’s name and address of 10 Gramercy Park, NYC. This was Henri’s place of residence most of his life. It is an unusual study because Henri was not in the habit of producing paint studies prior to executing a formal portrait. But Henri would often paint for his students in the classroom to demonstrate color use or a specific painting technique. It is in my opinion, this is a real possibility, that this is a demonstration piece for his class.

Another thing that is missing from this painting is Henri’s personal number code which appears on the back of most of his images. They correspond to his Record Books that list all of Henri’s paintings produced throughout his life. These codes are sometimes missing, especially prior to 1909, but sometimes later as well. If this was a demonstration piece, Henri might have not bothered to give it a number.

I searched through Henri’s personal archive to see if he had taken any paint notes on this image or if it was mentioned anywhere. This turned out to be negative. So how does one go about investigating such a piece if there are no written notes or correspondence that relate to the image? I thought that I would begin by comparing the colors in this image, “Hand Study”, with some of Henri’s palette designs.

One thing, I should note, is that Henri was immensely thorough in his notes. He not only indicated the image with a code number, the palette design that he used, along with the specific pigments he laid on the palette, but he also embedded paint samples of specific mixes within the paint notebooks. Most times, this includes the entire palette. What makes this a little easier, is that Henri’s palettes are built on a spectrum design where the 12 colors (pigments) of the full spectrum are laid out corresponding to the light spectrum. In many cases the values and the intensity of each color is mixed prior to painting including light mixes that were used as a substitute to setting white on the palette (Henri referred to these light mixes as Lighteners). So, in many cases, there is a basic map that Henri created for each palette ahead of his actual painting from life. Sometimes these palette maps are for singular images and other times for a series of paintings. These appear in Henri’s Paint Notebooks as a preset arrangement with a date.

In the case of the “Hand Study”, I was able to narrow down my choices to 2 palettes, the Triangular Palette of 1919 and the Permanent Palette of Jan. 4, 1921. I then proceeded to mix color combinations that are derived from each of these palettes and compare them. In the Permanent Palette design, there were some color mixes that I could not generate. Whereas, with the Triangular Palette design, I was able to recreate the full array of mixes that occurred within the “Hand Study”. To verify this hypothesis, I next proceeded to paint a copy of this image using the Triangular Palette of 1919. And to my satisfaction, I was able to reproduce all the color combinations necessary to imitate Henri’s image.

There is obviously a real possibility that I am mistaken as to which palette Henri used for this “Hand Study”. But what I did find through my experimentation, was that this study displayed amazing color temperature control, Henri applying cool color along side warm color, to render form in a three dimensional way using this Triangular Palette. I also, found some surprising color combinations that I would not necessarily mix myself or have seen others mix. This combined with Henri’s technique of building up the texture at the most projecting points within the bony structure of the forward hand, I found singularly striking. I found these techniques and others- the mixing of the complements and the neutral to vary the intensity of the color, the color temperature variety of the Lighteners, and the rendering of loose edges combined with interior paint build up, quite intriguing because Henri, in many of his portraits, would simplify the rendering of the hands in order to focus the eye on the face of the sitter.

In the end, my study and subsequent experimentation with the “Hand Study” only confirmed to me its authenticity. One can read Henri’s own assessment of what he strove to investigate and all of these elements are displayed within this paint study. Henri states in The Art Spirit,

“The difference between light and the artist’s pigments should be studied…

He should note the similarities which exist in color and music. Intervals of color across the spectrum. Intervals of color towards neutralization by mixing the complements. Intervals in the mixing of colors with white and the constructive power which rests in the opposition of warm colors to cold colors.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 158.

Whether this “Hand Study” will ever be authenticated as a Henri and rendered valuable is of secondary importance. The real gift of this study is Henri’s ability to teach a language that cannot be spoken directly, an artistic language that can only be understood by meditating on the sign-posts. “Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.” (Art Spirit, Dedication)

The owners of this Henri painting, Les and Sue Fox, are working on the catalogue raisonne for American artist Fern Coppedge, Pennsylvania Impressionist of the New Hope School.