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Robert Henri Photo

Robert Henri

American Painter and Teacher

Born: June 24, 1865 - Cincinnati, Ohio
Died: July 12, 1929 - New York, New York
"I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living."
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Robert Henri Signature
"Good composition is like a suspension bridge - each line adds strength and takes none away."
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Robert Henri Signature
"War deals with man's power - his control over others. Art deals with man's control over himself. Art's desire is to give, war's desire is to possess."
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Robert Henri Signature
"Never mind bothering about the detail...The camera reproduces the best likeness, but it is only the artist who can produce the temperament of the model."
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Robert Henri Signature
"There can be no delight in considering a technique that is without a motive."
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Robert Henri Signature
"I regard the...big annuals as institutions detrimental to art....Art should be persistent; exhibitions should be small...."
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Robert Henri Signature
"As I see it, there is only one reason for the development of art in America, and that is that the people of America learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and in their own land. In this country we have no need of art as a culture; no need of art for poetry's sake, or any of these things for their own sake. What we need is art that expresses the spirit of the people of today."
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Robert Henri Signature
"To succeed as a portrait painter, the artist must combine a certain distinction of work with concessions to the taste of his sitters, for he who pays must be pleased. The artist must also dine and make tea and otherwise waste time, for his clients not only want a good workman to interpret them but also a lion to exhibit. I want to paint better portraits than can be done that way. It's hard enough to do portraits even when there are no other tastes to please."
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Robert Henri Signature

Summary of Robert Henri

The leader of a group who became known as the Ashcan School, Henri can take credit for paving the way for the development of twentieth-century American Realism. The Ashcan School, or "The Eight" (as they were first known) turned away from the romantic idyls of the Impressionists, focusing instead on the hard realities of urban living; a style that Henri famously coined "art for life's sake". Henri's early works were small landscapes, but he made his name as a painter of larger-scale, unsentimental, portraits.

More than just a painter, however, Henri organized two independent exhibitions that challenged the hierarchal norms of the American art establishment by dispensing with jury selections and the awarding of prizes. Equally well respected as an art educator, Henri encouraged a process of self-discovery among his students, some of whom would join the ranks of America's most important twentieth-century artists. His philosophies on art were published in the book The Art Spirit (1923), a tome that still exerts influence on artists to this day.

Accomplishments

  • Before Henri, American modernism was represented by the likes of Mary Cassatt and William Merritt Chase whose light palettes and en plein air style saw them carry the torch for American Impressionism. As an artist who was driven rather to represent more relevant (and more urgent) social matters, Henri provided the inspiration for a contemporary group of painters - The Eight and/or the Ashcan School - that concerned itself with subject matter centered on the realities of metropolitan street-life.
  • Henri's loose brushwork mimicked the expressive style of the earlier Impressionists. But in Henri's hands, the gaiety associated with the former, became subdued through his toned down, more sober, color palette. Indeed, it was a style that, when taken onto the streets of New York by the Ashcan Group, would be transformed into what was to become known as American Urban Realism.
  • Henri's own reputation as an artist stands on a series of portrait and figure paintings which adopted a candid approach to "ordinary" sitters. His was a democratic approach to portraiture in that he chose his sitters from diverse racial groups and different social classes. As he matured as an artist, he became strongly influenced by the color theories of Hardesty Maratta and adopted the idea that color should be blended like musical cords to achieve the most congruent pictorial effects.
  • Henri was the key player in the rise of the American independent arts exhibition. A vocal opponent of Academy shows - "to award prizes is an attempt to control the course of another man's work [since] no way has been devised for measuring the value of a work of art" he said - Henri played the key role in putting on the 1910 Exhibition of Independent Artists. The exhibition set the tone for the ground-breaking Armory Show of 1913.

Biography of Robert Henri

Robert Henri Photo by Agence Meurisse (1924)

Very much a "man of the people", Henri stated that "In this country we have no need of art as a culture; no need of art for poetry's sake, or any of these things for their own sake". For Henri modern American art should be "art that expresses the spirit of the people of today".

Important Art by Robert Henri

Progression of Art
Snow in New York (aka New York Winter) (1902)
1902

Snow in New York (aka New York Winter)

Having returned from a stay in Paris in 1900, Henri turned to his immediate New York surroundings for inspiration, using its streets as the subject for several paintings. Here he presents a clear winter view down 55th Street which had recently been blanketed by snow. In the aftermath of the snowstorm, there is little human activity and a lone horse-drawn wagon struggling to make it down the street in the right foreground of the canvas offers only a hint of any narrative element.

This painting was made while Henri was the de facto leader of a group that would later become known as the Ashcan School. It bears many of the hallmarks of the Ashcan style: loose gestural brushstrokes, the preference for dark colors, and scenes that often focused on the working-class side of the city and its residents.

Markedly different from the more traditional approaches to art seen in America at the time, according to Washington's National Gallery of Art, "Henri's energetic but stark image of New York in the snow deviates from impressionist urban snow scenes of the period in several ways: it represents a common side street rather than a major avenue; there is nothing narrative, anecdotal, or prettified about the image; the straightforward, one-point perspective composition is devoid of trivial details the exceptionally daring, textured brushwork resembles a preparatory study rather than a finished oil painting; and the somber palette creates a dark, oppressive atmosphere".

Oil on canvas - Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Salome (1909)
1909

Salome

In this portrait, Henri has depicted the singer and dancer Mademoiselle Voclezca who appeared on stage in the opera Salome about the biblical figure who danced for Herod and requested the beheading of John the Baptist as a gift. In describing this figure, author Alice Murphy states, "unable to see the opera himself, Henri invited [Voclezca] to perform the notorious 'Dance of the Seven Veils' in his studio and painted her there. The artist's brushwork suggests the alluring, undulating rhythms of her dance: Long strokes render her bare waist and transparent skirt. These, in contrast with the rapid staccato paint marks that indicate her jewelry, give the impression that this dance is happening right before you".

This painting is unique in Henri's oeuvre. It is a rare example of a religious-themed work, and a highly controversial subject at that. While Henri painted many portraits, the decision to paint Salome was a highly provocative act given that Voclezca's performance had shocked New Yorkers when the opera premiered in 1907. According to the painting's home, the Ringling Museum, "in choosing this notorious subject, Henri seems to issue a challenge to the conservative fine art world of his day". Given its uncompromising subject, and Henri's innovative style, it also proved to be a rather ironically prophetic painting when one considers that just four years later, Henri, currently the trailblazer for American modernism, would be usurped from that position by European avant-gardists following the 1913 Armory Show.

Oil on canvas - Collection of John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida

Blind Spanish Singer (1912)
1912

Blind Spanish Singer

Henri made a total of seven trips to Spain during his career. He travelled there more than any other foreign destination and the country and its people provided him with inspiration for many artworks. As with his other portraits, he treated his subjects, drawn from a wide cross section of the Spanish public - including famous dancers, bullfighters, gypsies, street singers and elderly peasant men - with a candid directness. Among his early subjects were two blind street singers who he invited to his studio to play their guitars. Although Henri treated this subject with his typical candor, he worried (unnecessarily) that the painting would be shunned by the public because of his refusal to disguise his sitter's physical deformity.

Holding a guitar which rests in her lap, the woman's mouth is open to indicate she is also singing. The portrait represents Henri's desire to capture something of the ambience of Spain through its citizens. As he once said of the art of modern painted portraiture, "never mind bothering about the detail [...] The camera reproduces the best likeness, but it is only the artist who can produce the temperament of the model". During his first visit to Madrid in 1900, Henri spent many hours at the Prado copying paintings by Diego Velázquez. Indeed, one can see the influence of Velázquez here specifically in the subdued color palette and bland background (that does not distract from the sitter). The portrait fully illustrates Henri's departure from his early Impressionists style that drew more on the influence of Claude Monet and that circle.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Edna Smith in a Japanese Wrap (c. 1915)
c. 1915

Edna Smith in a Japanese Wrap

In this portrait, a young woman (Edna Smith) is shown in front of a dark background. She is draped in a Japanese-styled shawl that wraps around her shoulders. Covered in white and red flowers and vibrant green leaves, Edna draws our attention to the garment with her right hand which holds it in place across her chest. Edna Smith was a favorite model of Henri's in 1915 and she had already appeared in several portraits that year, including some of her nude or semi-nude. With her red hair and pale skin coloring, Edna represented the artists preference for a particular "type" of model (that included the dancer Jessica Penn and his second wife, Marjorie Organ).

Yet this portrait is more animate than his earlier works, underlining the artist's move away from the darker palette associated with the Ashcan School and his relatively newfound belief in the harmonious qualities of color. According to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Edna's portrait is quite "typical of Henri's ability to capture his subject's spirit" but by now he had (from around 1909) also "adopted the color system of theorist Hardesty Maratta, which assigns a letter and number to 144 harmonically related colors. Painters could use the system of letters and numbers to carefully plan the color relationships of their paintings [and so, the] rich harmonies of this image based on red and green show Henri's use of the Maratta system".

Oil on canvas - Collection of Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1915-16)
1915-16

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

A formidable figure in the art world, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's first interaction with Henri was in 1915 when she was establishing her charitable organization, Friends of Young Artists. At her request, Henri, with fellow Ashcan artists George Bellows and John Sloan, served as jurors (presumably Henri relaxed his stated aversion for juried selections because of the event's charitable status) for a benefit exhibition for her organization. Whitney duly commissioned Henri to paint her portrait, although she exercised considerable control over how her commission was to be executed.

Where one might have expected Henri to apply the blended Maratta color system he was employing elsewhere, author Bennard Perlman describes how Whitney rather, "chose to wear a brightly colored Chinese costume that she had purchased in San Francisco - a blue jacket with red decorations and yellow lining over a loose-fitting pale blue-green blouse and silk pants [...] and embroidered Chinese slippers". Added to that, she is seen "reclining on a gray sofa, is a tapestry that provides a mass of decorative foliage to frame her bobbed hair [while a] bracelet, four rings and a string of pearls are the finishing touches of this portrayal, at once sumptuous and provocative".

The painting was not without controversy and provides a good example of Henri's approach to realism. As the Whitney Museum describes, "Mrs. Whitney's husband, Harry Payne Whitney, refused to allow her to hang it in their opulent Fifth Avenue town house. He didn't want his friends to see a picture of his wife, as he put it, 'in pants.' Mrs. Whitney's attire and self-possessed demeanor were highly unusual for a well-bred woman of her day [...] Henri transformed the traditional genre of a recumbent female - usually a nude courtesan or the goddess Venus - into a portrait of the quintessential 'modern' woman. The portrait hung in Whitney's West 8th Street studio, which in 1931 became the first home of the Whitney Museum".

Oil on canvas - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York

Portrait of Dieguito Roybal, San Ildefonso Pueblo (1916)
1916

Portrait of Dieguito Roybal, San Ildefonso Pueblo

This portrait is one of twenty Henri painted during a two months stay in Santa Fe in the summer of 1916. His subject, Dieguito Roybal, was a member of the Tesuque Pueblo tribe and here the artist has depicted him wearing a yellow jacket, green pants, and white moccasins. Between his red blanket covered legs sits a large drum which he would play during important tribal ceremonies; a fact that is reinforced by the mallet he holds upright in his hand while he stares fixedly out at the viewer.

Henri was invited to stay in Santa Fe by the director of the American Archeology School who was an admirer of his work and so set him up with a studio in the prestigious Palace of the Governors. According to Perlman, Henri "originally made a memory sketch of the subject as he appeared drumming and chanting the eagle dance during a rehearsal for a performance that was held on the patio right outside of the artist's studio [...] Henri presented the work to the Museum of Art and Archeology immediately after its completion, and Dieguito would sit by the hour staring solemnly at his likeness, oblivious to anyone else in the gallery".

The indigenous people he saw, and the new culture he experienced, had a profound impact on Henri. He later told his students, "I was not interested in these people to sentimentalize over them, to mourn over the fact that we have destroyed the Indian [...] I am looking at each individual with the eager hope of finding there something of the dignity of life, the humor, the humanity, the kindness, something of the order that will rescue the race and the nation".

Oil on canvas - Collection of New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Mary Anne with Her Basket (1926)
1926

Mary Anne with Her Basket

In the last years of his life, Henri spent a considerable amount of time (half the year at a time) living on Achill Island, in Ireland. Henri purchased a house there in 1925 and devoted most of his creative energies to painting portraits of local children. Amongst those children were siblings Mary Ann and Thomas Cafferty. He painted Mary Ann on several occasions (including Pink Pinafore: Mary Ann Cafferty (1926), and The Pink Ribbon (1927)). As the Currier Museum describes Mary Anne with Her Basket: "Mary Ann is shown to be about ten years old. Wearing a pink smock over a black dress and holding a rectangular basket in her arms, she gazes at the viewer with large, dark eyes. Her serious expression is framed by wavy black hair tied back in a pink ribbon".

As the Currier Museum explains, the painting is not unlike many of Henri's other portraits of children in that he treats his young subjects with "little that is sentimental or indulgent". As it describes: "The sense of frankness that characterizes the sitter stems in part from Henri's realist bent, yet it is also a testament to the respect accorded to children by the artist.

While living in Ireland, Henri established a bond of trust with local boys and girls, enabling him to paint images that are notable for their easy dignity and naturalism. Henri himself was acutely aware of the ability of children to discern the genuineness of adults, and in his well-known treatise, The Art Spirit, he stated: "If you paint children you must have no patronizing attitude toward them. Whoever approaches a child without humility . . . and without infinite respect, misses in his judgment of what is before him".

Oil on canvas - Collection of Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Robert Henri
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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Robert Henri Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 28 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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