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Morgan Russell
American, 1886-1953


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Morgan Russell, along with fellow American painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright, fathered the Synchromism movement. Convinced that color and sound were equivalent, he wanted to “orchestrate” the colors of a painting the way a composer arranges notes and chords in a musical composition. The two artists developed a system of painting based on color scales. The system consisted of developing form and depth in a painting through advancing and reducing hues. Their ensuing “synchromies” were some of the first abstract non-objective paintings in American art.

Following from: John Ashbury, Dictionary of Modern Painting

Born in New York of French and English parents; died in Broomall, Pennsylvania. After studies with Robert Henri he came to France at the age of nineteen, where he met Matisse, Apollinaire, Modigliani (who painted his portrait) and Leo Stein, who encouraged him and helped him financially. But his most decisive meeting was with Stanton MacDonald Wright with whom he founded the movement known as ‘Synchromism.’ Russell’s Synchromie en Vert at the Salon des Indépendants in 1913 was the first Synchromist work to be shown; Synchromist exhibitions followed in the same year in Munich, New York and Paris. In 1916 Russell went to New York for a month to Exhibition at the Anderson Galleries. Back in France he shortly lost interest in Synchromism, adopting a classical and it must be said conventional figurative style. Occasionally, however, he reverted to abstraction. A canvas in the collection of Michel Seuphor dating from 1925 is in the best Synchromist tradition. Except for several winters in Rome and a trip to California in 1931 where he showed his work at the Palace of Legion Honor in San Francisco, he remained in France from 1916 to 1946, mostly on his small property at Aigremont in Burgundy, where he led a solitary existence following the death of his first wife. In 1946 he returned to America with his second wife, a niece of Claude Monet. Deeply religious, he painted a number of large-scale Biblical works in severe classical style during his last years, and spoke of his early abstractions as belonging to his ‘kindergarten period.’
It is the Synchromist works, however, which merit his inclusion here. Russell’s work, while closely related to that of MacDonald-Wright, is less suave and harmonious, more abrupt and inhabited by a rude strength,’avec des details crus et cruels’ (Michael Seuphor). Rough-hewn geometrical shapes, often trapezoidal, are crammed and crumpled into a kinetic image, which contrasts with the lyrical undulations of form in the work of his colleague. Writing on his work in the catalogue of the 1913 Sychromist exhibition at the Galerie Bernhein-Jeune, Russell said: ‘I have used light as a series of related chromatic undulations and have studied more profoundly the harmonic rapports between colours…As is evident, I give up the heritage of old drawing habits. Instead I run the happy risk of falling on some of the correspondences that exist between reality and our colour that form should gush out. From this point of view my art is related to the very mechanisms of natural vision.’