Art Term Tuesday: Unity & Harmony

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

Two of my favorite paintings are now on view side-by-side in Natural Appeal: Varying Approaches to the Landscape. Felrath HinesMorning and Alma Thomas’ Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass portray a similar subject from completely different points-of-view. When I view them, individually or together, I am instantly soothed and happy.

An image of two artworks hanging next to each other in a gallery.
Felrath Hines’ Morning (left) and Alma Thomas’ Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass (right). Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

You too? I credit the good vibes to the artists’ use of today’s terms and principles of art: unity and harmony.

Unity, as a general term and within the art world, share a meaning: a state of oneness, wholeness, or being unified. Without unity, a work of art can feel chaotic or confusing, making it difficult to read; it just may not “work” as a cohesive whole. If you’ve read our previous posts defining the elements and principles of art, you may have noticed a trend: while the elements are straightforward to define and observe, the principles are a little more loosey-goosey. More than any of the other principles so far, unity is a feeling one has when viewing an artwork. There are, of course, strategies artists can employ to encourage this feeling, usually including similar shapes, forms, lines, or colors throughout the work. Both Hines and Thomas unify their work through a cohesive color scheme and similar surface treatments across the works (Hines smooth and soft, Thomas with mosaic-like blocks). Let’s take a look at some more examples!

An abstract painting made up of long, thick brushstrokes in various colors.
John Paul Gee, American, 1940-2019. Untitled. Oil on canvas. Gift of Patricia Crane, 2022.54. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Compared with our first two works, the untitled painting above may feel a bit frenetic, covered edge to edge with brushstrokes in a wide range of hues, but it is those brushstrokes that unify the work. They are all a similar length and width, so while the mood of the work may not be exactly soothing, the allover surface treatment makes it cohesive. I would not, however, call this work harmonious. In visual art, harmony is similar to music, the pleasing combination of different parts. Like many of our two-for-one art terms, unity and harmony may seem interchangeable but there are slight differences. Unity can be achieved through harmony, and a work that is harmonious is generally also unified, but a work can also show unity without harmony. Even more than unity, harmony is a feeling evoked when viewing a work. 

A monochromatic blue woodcut of the roofs of houses in a line with a street intersecting the rows.
Junichiro Sekino, Japanese. 1914-1988. Blue Roofs. Color woodcut, 1970. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. William McNagny through the Fort Wayne Fine Arts Foundation Renaissance Campaign, 1986.22. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Does Blue Roofs, above, feel harmonious? Why? In this case, the elements that unify the work also lend it harmony: the monochromatic color palette in soothing shades of blue and the repeated straight lines.

A woodcut of a woman in a black-and-white striped shirt sitting amongst a field of irises.
Okiie Hashimoto, Japanese, 1899-1993. Girl and Irises. Color woodcut, 1952. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. William McNagny through the Fort Wayne Fine Arts Foundation Renaissance Campaign, 1986.23. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In Girl and Irises. above, the leaves and stems of the flowers echo the stripes of the girl’s shirt and the strands of her hair despite differing in scale. The organic forms of the irises stand out from the background but are repeated across the work, which is further unified by the muted color palette.

A wood engraving, no color, of men picking apples and depositing them in baskets set throughout the orchard.
Clare Leighton, American, b. England, 1898-1989. Apple Picking. Wood engraving on paper, 1932. Museum purchase, 1942.15. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Above, Clare Leighton used similar curved shapes across nearly the entire work: the shoulders and backs of the workers mimic the round trees and their shadows, as do the apple baskets and the fruits themselves! The visual harmony created by the complementary forms is aided by the subject, a team of apple pickers working together. Works set in or inspired by the landscape, like the two paintings from the beginning of this post, can capitalize on the harmony inherent to nature. The three works below are all based on nature: do they display both unity and harmony? Why or why not?

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