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Robert Henri

See also: American Art


As he roamed among the drawing boards, stopping to comment on a picture, or stood and expounded before a spellbound group, the charismatic Robert Henri [nb: pronounced not "ahn-ree", as in Henri Matisse, but "HEN-rye", as in rye whiskey] offered not just technical advice but a philosophy of life in which writers shared center stage with great artists of the past and present. His ideas on the making of art were formed in part during his years in France, where he had studied with the academic painter William Adolphe Bouguereau while preparing to enter the École des Beaux-Arts. Although Henri eventually rebelled against the elaborate allegorical figure paintings rendered in a highly finished technique that formed the mainstay of academic training, he absorbed other aspects of the French system. From Bouguereau he learned the importance of designing the canvas as a whole in order to achieve a unified composition. He also adopted the academic technique of making rapid oil sketches, or pochades, either as preparatory studies for larger works or as informal outdoor studies.

Equally important to Henri's education were his ongoing reading and discussions with fellow students. In France he continued to read and debate the work of thinkers, ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Thomas Paine to Mikhail Bakunin, who emphasized the importance of free thought and free will and the need for action in the present, suffused with a general humanitarianism. At the same time Henri was moved by the novels of Balzac, Emile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy, with their charged descriptions of the lives of the working class and their cries for social justice. He came to imagine the making of art as a noble activity on a par with writing, a way for the individual to live a meaningful life and to communicate with fellow beings. These ideas informed his response to the art he saw around him. Among the old masters, he sought out heroic painters of human subjects - Rembrandt, Hals, Velazquez, Goya - whose brushwork revealed the touch of the artist's hand. Henri was equally impressed by Manet's paintings, which he admired for their stunning characterizations of contemporary themes, forceful figures, and assured technique. Like the novelists Henri admired, but unlike the academic painters he disdained, these artists depicted an observed world, whether of the Spanish court or the Parisian street. But Henri also paid close attention to James McNeill Whistler and other symbolist painters who experimented with subordinating particular detail in order to evoke an overall "effect" or subjective mood. Henri described all of these artists as noble individuals whose sensibilities and responses to their subjects were evident in each stroke of the brush.

Back in Philadelphia, Henri preached this heady mix of enthusiasms to students, correspondents, and fellow artists at the Tuesday-night studio gatherings. These ideas eventually formed the basis of his formal teaching and the writings that he set down after 1900. Stuart Davis recalled a similar atmosphere in the classes Henri later taught in New York: "He would talk about some book he'd read and what it meant about life, and how this painting and the attitude toward it were related, or not related to the book.... What he did was to inspire a desire on the part of the listener to go out, to look up all this stuff and to get involved with it." In Emersonian fashion, Henri linked the "art spirit" to the independent life. He advised young people, "Don't tie up to any one school," yet he praised individual historic artists whose "simple and direct" work offered models for an authentic life in the present. The American painters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins joined Velazquez and Manet in the pantheon of artists whom Henri credited with "something great and serious to say the full daring to express their ideas." "Art and Life" became a rallying cry. Although Henri's students mocked their own self importance in a satiric ditty, "I am a genius, I am a genius man," generations of aspiring artists including the 1980s graffiti painter Keith Haring have continued to cite Henri's writings as inspiration.

Henri argued that art must inform the living of life, just as "life" must inform the making of art. To achieve the direct transmission of self into art, he advised painters to work quickly on the entire canvas rather than labor over individual parts. He urged them to work the way news artists already did as a matter of course: "Do it all in one sitting if you can. In one minute if you can." Most important, art, like news, must be of its own time, based on subjects drawn from the contemporary world of the artist's own experience and that experience should be as wide ranging as possible. Henri cited realist and naturalist fiction to demonstrate the interest that the "real world" held for great artists, but even more he quoted Wait Whitman. In the 1890s Whitman was still regarded as a local hero to Philadelphians (including Eakins) who had made the pilgrimage across the bridge to Camden, New Jersey, to pay their respects to the aging poet. Philadelphia's free spirits paid collective tribute following Whitman's death in 1892. That year Sloan and Henri became friends when Sloan lent the older artist the recent "deathbed edition" of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Both artists admired Whitman's close observation and ecstatic celebration of the daily lives of all Americans.

Like Rembrandt and Charles Dickens, the artists claimed, Whitman "found great things in the littlest things of life." Critics who later accused these artists of being "Apostles of Ugliness" missed an important point: rather than deliberately seeking the sordid, Henri believed that beauty could be found in ordinary life, even in the daily news, if seen by an extraordinary artist. This attitude differed slightly from that of a later generation of Henri's students whose work achieved disturbing expressionistic power through its exploration of dark emotions. In images by Bellows, Davis, and Edward Hopper, attraction and repulsion coexist in uneasy balance. But to the artists who gathered in Philadelphia in the 1890s, Henri posed the challenge of seeking the beautiful by redefining it. Whether, or how, they would succeed in that challenge was another matter.

In later years Henri sent students out into the city to make pochades in restaurants, boxing rings, and neighborhoods in New York. His friends in Philadelphia needed a different sort of encouragement. As reporters, they had already mastered a routine of quickly translating observations of immediate experience into vivid images. Henri encouraged them to use these skills as the basis for ambitious paintings. To this end, he also recommended that they study graphic art of the past. Seasoned draftsmen like Glackens were well aware of cartoons in the British magazine Punch; now Henri showed them Rembrandt's etchings, Goya's prints, and Honoré Daumier's caricatures, arguing that drawings based on everyday mores could achieve the status of great art. He exhorted the Philadelphia news illustrators to think of art as a calling rather than a job and to transform their experience in black and white into a vital form of contemporary painting that would make a mark on the American art scene and stand with the great works of the past. By the mid 1890s several of the group had begun to experiment with making paintings of streets around Philadelphia or those seen on trips abroad. But to realize Henri's challenge fully, each of the artists, including Henri himself, would have to move to New York. On returning to Philadelphia after a trip to view art in Manhattan in 1897, Henri wrote, "New York is so different from here - one feels alive there."

- From Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York


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Robert Henri Images

1901-02 Cumulus Clouds, East River
1904 Portrait of Willie Gee
1904 Spanish Dancing Girl
1906 La Reina Mora
1908 Celestina
1908 El Tango
1909 Marjorie in a Yellow Shawl
1909 Salome
1910 Dutch Joe (Jopie van Slouten)
1910 La Madrilenita
1915 Edna
1917 Portrait of Mary Fanton Roberts

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