Robert Henri and The Art Spirit

Robert Henri

“The Laundres” Robert Henri, oil, 1916

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri has got to be one of the best art books ever, without even a single painting or photograph between the covers. First published in 1923, the copy that I have had for many years is almost 300 pages of deep and insightful commentary on art, theory, and life. Every time I read The Art SpiritRobert Henri,  I feel so many different emotions, not the least of which has to do with my shortcomings as an artist. If you have this book, you know what I am talking about. If you don’t have this Robert Henri classic, I offer up this appetizer in hopes you will thirst for more…

Robert Henri – Some Background

Robert Henri was born in 1865 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was born Robert Henry Cozad, but in the early 1880’s, Robert Henri and several of his family members changed their last name in order to separate themselves from an event involving Henri’s father, a dispute, and a gun. Here are some of his career highlights:

  • Enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886
  • Traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, and embraced impressionism
  • Began teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1892
  • Around 1895 Robert Henri distanced himself from impressionism
  • In 1899 his painting La Neige (The Snow) was purchased by the French government
  • Began teaching at the New York School of Art in 1902. Some of his students included Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows and Stuart Davis.
  • In 1908 Robert Henri organized the famous show called “The Eight” named for the eight painters showing their work. This show was later to be the start of the Ashcan movement, although the term was given much later.
  • From 1915 to 1927 Robert Henri was a very popular and influential teacher at the Art Students League in New York City.
  • In 1923 a former student (Margery A. Ryerson) published Henri’s thoughts and ideas on art in the book “The Art Spirit.”
  • Chosen as one of the top three living American artists by the Art Council of New York in the spring of 1929
  • Robert Henri died in the summer of 1929.
Robert Henri

“Girl Seated by the Sea” Robert Henri, oil, 1893

16 Highlights from “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri

“Cherish your own emotions and never under value them.”

“We are not here to do what has already been done.”

“Understand that in no work will you find the final word, nor will you find a receipt that will just fit you. The fun of living is that we have to make ourselves, after all.”

“The mere brush stroke itself must speak. It counts whether you will or not. It is meaningful or it is empty. It is on the canvas and it tells its tale. It is showy, shallow, mean, meager, selfish, has the skimp of a miser;  is rich, full, generous, alive and knows what is going on.”

“Many a canvas carries on its face the artist’s thought of the cost of paint. And many a picture has fallen short of its original intention by the obtrusion of this idea.”

“It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him.”

“The pictures which do not represent an intense interest cannot expect to create an intense interest.”

“A public which likes to hear something worth while when you talk would like to understand something worth while when it sees pictures.”

“You can learn more from yourself than you can from anyone else.”

“The greatness of art depends absolutely on the greatness of the artist’s individuality and on the same source depends the power to acquire a technique sufficient for expression.”

“There is nothing more entertaining than to have a frank talk with yourself. Few do it-frankly. Educating yourself is getting acquainted with yourself.”

“It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it. A good picture is a fruit of all your great living.”

“Don’t take me an authority. I am simply expressing a very personal point of view. Nothing final about it. You have to settle all these matters for yourself.’

“The eye should not be led where there is nothing to see.”

“Out of it all, what is good will survive and will be known later; what is bad or negligible will pass and we shall have lived.”

“The pursuit of happiness is a great activity. One must be open and alive. It is the greatest feat man has to accomplish, and spirits must flow. There must be courage. There are no easy ruts to get into which lead to happiness. A man must become interesting to himself and must become actually expressive before he can be happy.”

 Robert Henri – The Art Spirit

Robert Henri

“The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri, the 1960 version

As I mentioned above, the Art Spirit was first published in 1923. The book itself has no table of contents and is laid out in a kind of fragmented way. It’s kind of like a Robert Henri monologue of notes, thoughts, critiques, ideas and principles. Certain subject are repeated in the book and presented in a slightly different way.

What I like about this book is that it makes me think  beyond the mere surface and the technical. I feel smarter having read it. Keep in mind that this book is about 90 years old and some of the verbage does reflect the time it was written. That fact does not take away from the wealth of wisdom presented within the pages of Robert Henri’s “The Art SpiritRobert Henri.”

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