The Artists’ Concern for Analogical Relationships


The word “analogy” is used quite often by artists and poets to describe comparable relationships between images, objects and ideas. It also includes those relationships that exist between colors, lines and tones. In the 19th century this concept of equivalency or likeness of relations was in the air. It shows up in the work of Charles Baudelaire as “correspondence,” Eugene Chevreul as “‘complementaries,” Robert Henri as “analogies,” and Alfred Stieglitz as “equivalents”. The “golden section,” “dynamic symmetry,” and “rebatement” also fall into this realm of ideas. This search for phenomena that supports the artists own experience of balance and harmony in nature mirrors something that lies within the imagination of the artist. The  imagination seeks its counterpart in one’s experience in the world. It seeks to give what appears fleeting some permanence. Ibn’Arabi calls this place of meeting the “isthmus”- the place where the imagination meets the world as an image in a mirror, one reflecting the other in an analogical way. The artist intuits these real relationships between what lies within and the world without and he seeks phenomena to verify his feelings.

Because of this inherent need of the artist to find an insight into the greater forces at work behind his fascination with visual phenomena, there is a constant dialogue that takes place between the artist and his own work as well as a dialogue among other artists and writers. Georges Seurat in his published letter to Maurice Beaubourg, August 28, 1890 states that, “Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of contrary elements and the analogy of similar elements of tone, color and line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations. The contraries are: For tone, one more clear (luminous) for one more dark; For color, the complementaries, that is to say a certain red opposed to its complementary (green), ect.; For line, those forming a right angle.” (Joshua Taylor, Nineteenth- Century Theories of Art, p.541) Seurat’s fascination with analogical relationships, in regard to color especially, lead to the movement of Neo- impressionism. Robert Henri refers to these ideas as valuable stating he has read Signac’s book on Neo-Impressionism in french and there is much to glean from it. (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.60)  Although Henri never fully accepts the Neo-Impressionist idea of a full division of color, he obviously is in tune to Seurat’s idea of “contraries”. Henri’s attraction to Seraut rests particularly with color. He has previously explored H.G. Marratta’s analogical relationship between color and musical chords and Denman Ross’s color and value analogies in regard to planes. It is not surprising that Seurat’s concept of “contraries” intrigues him.

Henri constantly searched for a real relationship between what he painted and the process of painting, itself. Painting should entail in a very real way some quality of the subject beyond the specific conditions of the light.  This is where color came to take up such a fascination for him. Color became a tool by which Henri could describe his subject in an analogical way- that color could describe the character and the emotional state of the subject far more clearly than the pure skill of rendering accurately. Although, Henri’s portraits are clearly rendered with feeling and accuracy.

In Henri’s late work- the Irish portraits painted in the last years of his life-one can see the great unity he achieves.  His subjects are simple and pure- like a Gallic ballad or a line from the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Henri honors “his people” and seeks to find the analogical means that will mirror this beauty and simplicity. His color analogies of “3 or 5 set against the complement” become the method he chooses that in a real way reflect the mystery of his Irish subjects. The emotional content of the image finds its practical and analogical relationship in a simple palette- the inner life finding its isthmus to the world.

An artist needs to foster this intuitive feeling for analogical relationships and seek the means or methods necessary to join them to one’s subject forming an image that goes beyond the mere descriptive. But Henri also adds a warning to this:

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive…it would be far wiser to develop creative power by constant search for means particular to a motive already in mind, by studying and developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or emotion which has moved you to expression.You will not only develop your power to see the means, but you will acquire power to organize the means to a purpose…You will become a master and organizer of means, and you will understand the value of means as no mere collector of means ever can.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.220)

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.

3 thoughts on “The Artists’ Concern for Analogical Relationships”

  1. Studying with you has been very important to me. My artistic spirit has been in the doldrums for quite a while because I am unable to create the sense of form I would like with color. Learning to model the forms of the human figure in life drawing was a key to a mystical realm that fueled and inspired me but lately I have been less and less in touch with that sense because of my frustration with the use of color. In your class because of your help with color relationships, that vision of form which I love so much appeared and in a more powerful way than in any drawing or painting I could do. The wonderful sense of mystery is back!
    I am very much looking forward to resuming in your classes. Thank you Judith!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.