Henri’s Exploration of Color Intensity


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:

13                                                                    YG

11    G  GB                                          OY     Y       G

9                                      R  RO  O

7               B  BP        PR             Below each color the intensity descends to S

5                           P

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. Maratta 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.




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).


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.


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.


Creating Harmonics within a Chord

Robert Henri (American, 1865-1929) : The Little Dancer, 1916-18. Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.

Henri’s use of the Maratta “Spectrum Palette” morphs and develops over the course of his career. Henri constantly investigated the scientific basis of the nature of color from Delacroix to Chevreul to Denman Ross as well as Maratta’s constantly evolving investigations. Add to this his own personal experimentation into color and one has a sense of the complexity of his pursuits.

In Henri’s notes of March 1,1919 (Henri has already worked with the spectrum palette for 10 years) he takes a chord and expands upon it in a new way. He shapes the expression of the chord by selecting one color or a section of the chord to take precedence. Henri first takes the chord PR-OY-B which includes the Bi colors of RObi, Gbi, BP. He expands this to 12 colors, creating the new spectrum palette that this chord produces, and mixes them on the palette. This includes the inter-mixtures between the colors including the Bi colors. So the palette looks like this:


(The lowercase letters are the inter-mixtures between the colors of original chord)

Now that he has the palette set, Henri decides that he wishes to emphasize the OY and the PR. If we look at the palette lay-out, Henri is emphasizing the warm end of the palette between PR and OY. The page reads as such:

(PR)      (OY)      (PR+OY)

R            Y           O

Rbi         Ybi         Obi

Rh          Yh         Oh

So one can observe, as an example, that the R color moves from an intense warm in a lighter value to Rh, a neutralized cool in a lower value. This seems useful because one can take the primaries of the chord and see them in several different values, color temperatures and intensities. This seems to accentuate the quality of the chord. It also allows Henri to use the colors without excessive mixing. He can lay down the color of say, O and give it variety in value and temperature by laying down the Obi and Oh to shape the form. These colors are in a harmonious relationship already and laying them down as such allows for that harmony to be made evident on the canvas.

Another aspect to this is that the dominant color of the chord begins to penetrate every aspect of the composition. The lighter value, intense, warm color of the chord comes forward, let us say, as a carnation on the face. Then, let us say, that the Bi color which is of a middle value and slightly less intense and cooler occupies an article of clothing or a chair. Then, let us say, the hue occupies the background being the darkest value, least intense and the coolest. This arrangement allows a single color to find its place throughout the image and intensify one’s sensation of that color.

Musically, this feels like harmonics. The dominant color creates vibrations throughout the canvas and re-emphasizes the chord. The only concern with the addition of more colors added to the chord, is that one does not want to lose the character of the chord.

Further reading on this subject can be found in “Radiating Intensities” and “Spectrum Color Recession“.

Please note that the image of “The Little Dancer” is not in this chord but was painted around the same period as the entry, March 1, 1919 and has similar qualities.

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