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Cosmic Synchromy

On view

Cosmic Synchromy

Artist: Morgan Russell (American, 1886 - 1953)

Date: 1913-1914
Medium: Oil on canvas
Frame: 23 x 20 x 1 1/2"in. verified by mlm 12/6/07
Image: 16-1/2 x 13-1/4 in.
Signed: Lower right: 'Morgan Russell'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 57.26
Text Entries

In Paris 1913, together with fellow American expatriate Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Morgan Russell founded the modernist movement they called Synchromism, meaning “with color.”(1) They chose the term for its analogy with the word symphony to suggest their interest in color rhythms. Russell’s explanation of his intentions, written for the catalog of the Synchromist exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, in October 1913, helps to explain the basis of Cosmic Synchromy:

These “color rhythms” somehow infuse a painting with the notion of time: they create the illusion that the picture develops, like a piece of music, within a span of time, while the old painting existed strictly in space, its every expression grasped by the spectator simultaneously and at a glance.(2)

Russell’s Cosmic Synchromy contains repeated variations of the same spiral shape that he included in his earlier work, the monumental painting of 1913, Synchromy in Deep Blue Violet (Regis Collection, Minneapolis, Minnesota). In that picture the spiral derived from the contrapposto of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (Louvre). In the Utica picture, however, no such obvious pictorial source is evident.(3) Russell explained this when he exhibited this work in The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in New York, in March 1916:

In my next step I was concerned with the elimination of the natural object and with the retention of color rhythms. An example of this period is the Cosmic Synchromy. The principal idea in this canvas is a spiralic plunge into space, excited and quickened by appropriate color contrasts.(4)

The importance Russell placed on Cosmic Synchromy is demonstrated by his exhibiting this canvas in the Forum Exhibition and discussing the work specifically in his text in the exhibition’s catalog. For the reproduction of one of his works next to his essay, he also chose this painting among those he exhibited.

Macdonald-Wright had written to Russell and suggested that he include the Cosmic Synchromy among the works he sent to the Forum Exhibition, predicting that the picture was certain to sell: “Send by all means the Cosmic affair because as it has been advertised copiously it is a sure sale.”(5) This recommendation may have been prompted by the work’s having been reproduced a year earlier in Modern Painting, a book by the critic Willard Huntington Wright, Macdonald-Wright’s brother and one of the Forum Exhibition’s organizer.(6) Despite Macdonald-Wright’s confidence and Willard Wright’s promotion, Russell did not sell Cosmic Synchromy. When Willard Wright purchased one of his drawings from the Forum Exhibition, Russell generously gave him the Cosmic Synchromy and another painting, Au Cafe (location unknown), from the exhibition.

Today we can recognize Cosmic Synchromy as one of Russell’s most important Synchromist paintings, produced at the moment when he had confidently developed his own original style, which would preserve his place in the history of modernist painting.



1. For a detailed analysis of this movement and Russell’s development, see Gail Levin, Synchromism and American Color Abstraction, 1910-1925 (New York: George Braziller, 1978).

2. For the entire text of this catalog and other Synchromist texts, see Levin, Synchromism, p. 130.

3. For a discussion of the sculptural basis of many Synchromist abstractions, see Gail Levin, “The Tradition of the Heroic Figure in Synchromist Abstractions,”Arts Magazine, vol. 51 (June 1977), pp. 138-42.

4. The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, exhibition catalog (New York: Anderson Galleries, March 13-25, 1916), unpaged. In this catalog, the title of Cosmic Synchromy is given in English only.

5. Stanton Macdonald-Wright to Morgan Russell, referred to in Levin, Synchromism, p. 30; quoted in full in William C. Agee, “Willard Huntington Wright and the Synchromists: Notes on the Forum Exhibition,” Archives of American Art Journal, vol. 24, (1984), p. 11.

6. Willard Huntington Wright, Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (New York: John Lane Company, 1915), p. 294, as Synchromie Cosmique.


Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).