New Design


Synchromism Collage
Started: 1912
Ended: 1924
I came to the conclusion that color, in order to function significantly, must be used as an abstract medium. Otherwise the picture appeared to me as a slight, lyrical decoration.
Stanton Macdonald-Wright Signature

Summary of Synchromism

At the time when French, German, and Eastern European artists were deftly pushing painting toward complete abstraction in the second decade of the 20th century, two audacious Americans, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, then living in Paris, made their own forays into abstraction, calling their new movement Synchromism. Russell coined the term when he thought of the word "symphony," and "chrome" flashed across his mind, so he put the two words together. The resulting paintings, called Synchromies, used the color scale in the way notes might be arranged in a musical piece, as the two artists wrote, "Synchromism simply means 'with color' as symphony means 'with sound'...."

Dismissing their artistic confrères, the Synchromists insisted that they had finally used color abstractly and not descriptively. While their bombast offended their European colleagues, the Synchromists had a small, if short-lived, following back in the United States and are known for being America's first avant-garde group.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of Synchromism

Synchromism Image

A number of influences came together in the development of Synchromism, including the influence of the Fauves, and particularly Henri Matisse, as well as the work of Paul Cézanne and the Cubism of Pablo Picasso. Additionally, the color theories of the Canadian artist Ernest Percyval-Tudor as well as atonal music and sculpture, particularly on the part of Russell, contributed to the formulation of the movement.

Important Art and Artists of Synchromism

Morgan Russell: Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14)

Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14)

Artist: Morgan Russell

This large canvas, about eleven feet square, with a frame painted by the artist that both contains the painting and lets the painting spill into the space around it, has been described as Russell's greatest work. The planes of saturated colors that curve and fold have a remarkable density and three-dimensional effect. The green and red triangles on the upper left seem to buckle with intensity, weighing on the yellow, green, and white irregular geometric shapes in the center. A dynamic stacking of various planes creates a sense of unfurling while being simultaneously energetically contained.

Russell used his sculptural study of Michelangelo's the Dying Slave as the foundation for this work, as he evolved his abstract composition. As he said, "I always felt the need to impose on color the same violent twists and spirals that Rubens and Michelangelo imposed on the human body." When shown at the Salon des Indépendants, the work was titled Synchromie en orange: la création de l'homme conçue comme le résultat d'une force génératrice naturelle (Synchromy in Orange: the creation of man conceived as a result of a natural generative force). The artist meant the work to be a tour de force of the Syncrhomist style as well as a response to the large abstract Orphist paintings of the Delaunays and Franz Kupka.

Arthur B. Davies: Day of Good Fortune (1914)

Day of Good Fortune (1914)

Artist: Arthur B. Davies

This painting, depicting two dancing, nude women, shows Davies bringing a Synchromist treatment to his characteristic figurative work. The woman on the left, rendered primarily in tones of white, her arms over her head, bends forward gracefully, while on the right, another woman, a kaleidoscope of color, lifts her left leg and arches her arms above her head. Depicted in variously colored geometric shapes, the women become closer to abstracted figures of movement, flowing into the shapes that extend and swirl around them like the music that attends them. The black background, suggesting the backdrop of a stage, creates a sense of space through which the music swirls, embodied in the movements of the dancers and extending out of the pictorial frame.

Davies, already well-known for his somewhat lyrical and Symbolist figurative work that had a fundamentally decorative effect, was equally interested in more avant-garde art. He helped to organize the 1913 Armory Show that introduced European avant-garde work to the American art world, and his subsequent explorations of other styles, including Cubism, show the impact the show had on his own work. Both Russell and Macdonald-Wright attempted Synchromist figurative work, as seen in Macdonald-Wright's self-portrait, though not as successively as Davies does here.

Thomas Hart Benton: Bubbles (1914-17)

Bubbles (1914-17)

Artist: Thomas Hart Benton

The title of this work, assigned by its first owner the writer H. L. Mencken, suggests that the painting is illustrative, but in fact it was meant to be entirely abstract. Using a vibrant color scheme, the painting depicts a number of variously colored circular shapes radiating from its center, as larger varied geometric forms, predominantly blue, green, purple and yellow curve around it. Crescents of more intense color on the circles draw the viewer's eye up along the center right as if following a kind of implicit J shape.

Benton's painting, influenced by MacDonald-Wright's circular forms in Conception Synchromy (1914), exudes a sense of vibrant rhythm. A visual syncopated din and bustle is created by the juxtaposition of curvilinear shapes and angular geometric forms. The viewer's eye moves through the canvas, following the complex movement of color as one might hear the interplay of different instruments in a musical piece. Benton had a lifelong interest in music, and part of the effect of this work is based upon his understanding of how sound works. Created in waves, different notes bounce off one another, and the aural quality is changed.

Close friends with Macdonald-Wright, Benton tried Synchromism for a time and exhibited this painting at the Forum Exhibition in 1916, but, more importantly, he shared with Russell a profound interest in sculpture, saying, "Following the Synchromist practice at the time, I based the composition of these pictures on Michelangelo's sculpture." The implicit J shape, creating a sense of both physical movement and pictorial unity, and the emphasis upon the color triad of red, yellow, and blue, were derived from studying the Renaissance master's work. While Benton abandoned Synchromism, feeling dissatisfied with the results, the rhythm and vibrant color used in this work became noted elements in the American regionalist work for which he became famous.

Useful Resources on Synchromism


Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Synchromism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 22 Oct 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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