The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: Robert Henri

18 Apr

Robert Henri, Cumulus Clouds, East River (c. 1901-02)

Note: click on any image to enlarge

I’m continuing with my focus on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the lodestar of modern American realist painting.  I first featured Thomas Eakins and then Eakins’s protege Thomas Anshutz.

One of Anshutz’s best students at the Pennsylvania Academy was Robert Henri (1865-1929).  Henri was a founder of the so-called  “Ashcan School,” an early twentieth century American art movement that sought to elevate art above the merely picturesque.  As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, Henri celebrated ordinary people and plain, even conventionally ugly, landscapes.  Yet he had a great eye for beauty.  All the more so because he could find it in places usually untouched by art.

Robert Henri, Dutch Joe (1910)

I love all of Henri’s work, but Dutch Joe really stands out to me.  The boy in this painting has a face, as my grandmother used to say, “that only a mother could love.”  Yet you really find yourself loving this kid, lumps and all.  That’s Henri.  He truly loved the average Joe.  Dutch Joe is in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum and is worth a firsthand look.

Robert Henri in 1897

I’m primarily a landscape painter myself, and so I’ve always been attracted to Henri’s landscapes.  If you caught my recent post on Thomas Anshutz, you can really see Anshutz’s influence in Henri’s landscape painting.  That’s what I aspire to.  Aren’t his landscapes just wonderful?

Robert Henri, Crashing Surf or Flying Spray (c. 1903)

Robert Henri, Summer Storm (1902)

Henri was himself a great teacher — perhaps eclipsing even Anshutz in this department.  In addition to being the most influential member of the Ashcan School Henri mentored the likes of George Bellows and Edward Hopper.

As a teacher of art Henri was bold, charismatic and intensely popular among his students.  His teachings on art are compiled in a neat little book entitled The Art Spirit edited by Margery Ryerson and first published in 1923.  My well-worn copy of the book is a 1984 re-print by Harper & Row.  It’s one of the best books on art I’ve ever read, and the only one I treat as The Bible for the sort of painting I try to do.  As Bellows said of The Art Spirit: “I would give anything to have come by this book years ago.  It is in my opinion comparable only to the notes of Leonardo and Sir Joshua . . . . One of the finest voices which express the philosophy of modern men in painting.”

Robert Henri, Annie Lavelle (c. 1913)

To say Henri is quotable would be an understatement.  He preaches the true gospel of modern realist painting.  Henri in his own words:

  • There is no art without contemplation.
  • Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy.
  • The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.
  • A drawing should be a verdict on the model. Don’t confuse a drawing with a map.
  • The artist should have a powerful will. He should be powerfully possessed by one idea.
  • An artist who has no imagination is a mechanic.
  • I am interested in the size of your intention. It is better to overstate the important than to understate it.
  • There are pictures that manifest education and there are pictures that manifest love.
  • A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.
  • There has never been a painting that was more beautiful than nature. The model does not unfold herself to you, you must rise to her. She should be the inspiration for your painting. No man has ever over-appreciated a human being.
  • Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.
  • The point is to know how to put nothing on the canvas, and have it look like something when you stand back.

Robert Henri, Girl Seated By The Sea (1893)

Henri stated plainly his affection for the sorts of people he liked to paint:

“The people I like to paint are ‘my people,’ wherever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines intended for them.  My people may be old or young, rich or poor, I may speak their language or I may communicate with them only by gestures.  But wherever I find them, the Indian at work in the white man’s way, the Spanish gypsy moving back to the freedom of the hills, the little boy, quiet and reticent before the stranger, my interest is awakened and my impulse immediately is to tell about them through my own language — drawing and painting in color.”

Robert Henri, The Beach Hat (1914)

I would place Robert Henri at or very near the top of the list of my favorite painters of all time.  Anyone seriously interested in the discipline of oil painting would be well advised to become acquainted with him.  The Art Spirit is a great little volume and would be mandatory reading if I were King for a day!

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