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Robert Henri Photo

Robert Henri - Biography and Legacy

American Painter and Teacher

Born: June 24, 1865 - Cincinnati, Ohio
Died: July 12, 1929 - New York, New York

Biography of Robert Henri

Childhood and Education

It would be something of an understatement to say that Henri, born Robert Henry Cozad, had an unconventional upbringing. His father, John Cozad, who was distantly related to the American artist Mary Cassatt, was a real estate developer and professional riverboat gambler who set out to build a new town near Cincinnati that he named Cozaddale. Eventually the town would be abandoned due to financial troubles and Henri's father moved his family to Nebraska where, in 1873, he established the town of Cozad. It was here that Henri, now a teenager, gained his first real experience of art making when he helped his father write and illustrate articles for the new town's newspaper.

When Henri's home was burned down in an arson attack, the family, including Henri's mother Theresa, and his brother, Johnny, moved to Denver. Further tragedy struck in 1882 when Henri's father returned to Cozaddale on business and became embroiled in a fight over land rights with a rancher called Alfred Pearson whom he accidentally shot dead. Indicted for manslaughter, and fearing John would be apprehended and brought to trial, the family moved from Denver to Atlantic City (via New York) and changed their identities; keeping them even after John was cleared of all charges by the Nebraskan state. Pronounced "hen rye", Robert became Robert Earl Henri; his brother, Frank Southern Henri, with both boys being passed off in public by their parent's as foster children.

Early Training

Henri painted this portrait of his first teacher and mentor, Thomas Anshutz, in 1906.

Once settled in Atlantic City, Henri began to focus on his drawing. His career as an artist took their first tentative steps when, in the winter of 1885, the family milkman, himself a former art student, saw Henri's drawings hanging on the walls and, recognizing his innate talent, recommended he attend formal art classes. In the fall of 1886 Henri enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) where he thrived under the direction of teacher Thomas Anshutz who was especially interested in anatomy.

In 1888 Henri traveled to Paris where he was enrolled at the Académie Julian. He studied under the academic painters Adolphe-William Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury, but he became more enamoured with the technique of Impressionism, and especially the paintings of Claude Monet. Henri took especially to the Impressionist preference for painting outdoors (en plein air) and soon adopted the practice in his own art. His main goal during this time, however, was to become a student at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts which he achieved (at the second time of trying), following short painting excursions to Brittany, Barbizon, and Venice, during the spring of 1891. However, he found the Beaux-Arts program stifling and took the decision to return home in September of that year.

Mature Period

Once back in America, Henri settled in Philadelphia where he again enrolled in classes at the PAFA. He studied under the American Impressionist Robert William Vonnoh and began submitting paintings to the school's annual exhibition. Henri took up his first teaching post in May 1892 at the School of Design for Women (where he taught drawing and composition classes until 1895). According to author Bennard Perlman, "teaching was rewarding to him from the start, and soon after the initial class he informed his parents that he was a 'considerable success' with his pupils".

While still attending classes at the PAFA he made the acquaintance of a group of four illustrators - William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan - working for the Philadelphia Press newspaper. The five men met at Henri's studio where they came together to paint and to discuss philosophy and critique art. They called themselves the Charcoal Club. By now, Henri had already started to rebel against what he saw as the sentimental subjects that dominated American art. He implored his new friends and colleagues to free themselves from the dominant European styles and to turn rather to American subjects that should be based on the lived experience of contemporary American life. Finally, he championed individual creativity over any prescribed formal approach. Even after the Charcoal Club disolved, Henri established the practice of holding Tuesday evening gatherings at his studio which also became a meeting/practice space for an amateur dramatic troupe.

In 1885, Henri embarked on what would become a two-year trip to Europe where he made art and taught classes to American students; marking the start of a pattern of travel between home and abroad that would continue throughout his life. It was on this tour that he became enamored with the art of Frans Hals and Édouard Manet. Their influence led him to adopt a darker color palette and initiated his move away from the lighter, more idyllic, Impressionistic style.

Once back in Philadelphia, Henri met and fell in love with a student, Linda Craige, who was enrolled in one of his private art classes. The couple were married six months later (on June 2, 1898) and moved to Paris where they lived for more than a year. Henri painted many city scenes of Paris and European life, and was thrilled when one of his paintings, La Neige (The Snow) was purchased for the Musée National du Luxembourg. Sadly, the couple's happiness was broken when Linda suffered a miscarriage. The personal tragedy was the catalyst for his wife's declining health.

In the summer of 1900, the couple moved to New York City where Henri began painting scenes from his studio window. Having reestablished links with his circle of friends (many of whom were also now living in New York) including Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan, he planned a group exhibition at The Allan Gallery. The group depicted gritty, unpolished, scenes of daily city. It was a style that became known as Urban Realism and later earned them the label "Ashcan School". (As historian Barbara H. Weinberg records, "The term Ashcan School was suggested by a drawing by [George] Bellows captioned Disappointments of the Ash Can, which appeared in the Philadelphia Record in April 1915; was invoked by cartoonist Art Young in a disparaging critique that appeared in the New York Sun in April 1916; and was given curatorial currency by Holger Cahill and Alfred H. Barr Jr. in a 1934 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art".)

While never organized into a formal group, it was Henri who set out to attract other younger artists to the "Ashcan" style. His most notable "new recruit" was George Bellows who had been Henri's student at the New York School of Art (where Henri had been teaching since 1902). Of his oft-quoted recollection of his very first lesson with Henri, Bellows stated, "my life begins at this point".

In December 1905, Linda suffered an attack of gastritis which was so severe it would take her life. The tragedy coincided with a major shift in Henri's approach to art that came to light at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition of 1907. The jury had to review more than fourteen hundred works and Henri took issue with the negative evaluations of some artists, notably works by Glackens and Luks. Henri argued that they were criticized simply because they were more modern in their approach and therefore offered an afront to the traditional techniques promoted by the Academy. Henri demanded a second vote on the paintings (which was his right as an Academy member) and when the original verdict was upheld, he removed his own two paintings from the exhibition in protest. The Academy responded to the negative press Henri's gesture generated by removing him from the 1908 jury and by rejecting prospective new members, including Henri's friend, Arthur Davies.

Henri was the organizer of what is now known as “The Eight” exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries in February of 1908.

Not long after Henri's public reproach of the Academy's "old-fashioned" practices, he planned an independent exhibition. Opening in February 1908 at New York's Macbeth Gallery, the exhibition featured the work of Henri, Davies, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Sloan, Maurice Prendergast and Earnest Lawson. The exhibition, which dispensed altogether with the jury review process, proved a resounding success, with several thousand visitors attending in New York before travelling to eight other cities. The exhibition introduced Americans to a different style of art, and although the group only came together for one organized exhibition, critics began referring to them as "The Eight".

<i>The Masquerade Dress</i> (1911). The comic book artist and illustrator, Marjorie Organ, was Henri's second wife and modelled for several of her husband's portraits.

Henri's personal circumstances also improved when, on the New York opening night of "The Eight" exhibition, he met a comic book artist named Marjorie Organ. Twenty-two years his junior, they were married five weeks later. As well as sitting for him (as a model) Marjorie encouraged his work and his teaching and supported Henri in the founding of the Henri School of Art in Manhattan which opened in January 1909 (he sold the school when faced with financial difficulties but continued to teach there under the new owners).

Henri's new wife replaced Jessica Penn, the Ziegfeld Follies dancer who had been Henri's preferred model (calling her "one of the finest nudes I have ever seen") since the turn-of-the-century. Like earlier works such as Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes (1908), The Masquerade Dress was executed in the style of full-length seventeenth century portraiture which set the model against a plain dark background. Indeed, one can see the direct influence of Diego Velázquez had on Henri here. While he would never paint Penn again, it is point of interest that, like Marjorie, and several other of Henri's female models, Penn was a striking redhead.

<i>The Laughing Boy (Jopie van Slouten)</i> (1910). With his children's portraits, Henri was paying direct homage to the Dutch master, Frans Hals.

In 1910, Henri made one of two visits to the Netherlands where he became captivated by portraits by Frans Hals. He had painted several portraits of laughing children, and Henri sought to pay homage to the Dutch master after meeting local children, including a lad called Jopie van Slouten. Henri described Jopie indeed as "a great, real human character to paint" and, in the words to author Bennard Perlman, the grinning Jopie "responded to the childless artist's sincerity, warmth and friendship".

Also in 1910, Henri organized a second, larger, exhibition by way of a direct challenge to the National Academy. As The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists describes: "In the United States, Robert Henri first made significant use of the independent exhibition as a vehicle for enlarging aesthetic debate [...] In 1910, along with Walt Kuhn and John Sloan, he instigated the 'Exhibition of Independent Artists.' Presenting about five hundred stylistically varied works in rented space on West Thirty-fifth Street, this event followed the policy of 'no jury, no prizes,' which remained a cornerstone of subsequent independent efforts. Although sales were disappointing, the show drew a huge crowd and provoked controversy, proving that large, inclusive, anti-academic shows could be successful without institutional support". Indeed, the Exhibition of Independent Artists is often cited as the precursor to America's most famous independent exhibition of all, the 1913 Armory Show.

Later Period

Henri's reluctance to embrace the avant-garde styles being fostered on the European continent marked the beginning of his decline as a pioneer of American modernism. His fall from eminence was accelerated by his former friend and fellow artist Davies, with whom, according to Perlman, "resentment had been quietly building for years" over what Davies believed to be the lack of credit he received for his part in planning both The Eight and Independent Artists exhibitions. Davies succeeded in limiting Henri's participation in the planning of The Armory Show in 1913 and when Henri's paintings were seen among the other exhibited pieces, they seemed somewhat conservative and outdated (or "unmodern"). Speaking of the impact of the aftermath of The Armory Show, author RL Foster describes how Henri, "retained his preeminent academic standing as an instructor [...] but the appreciation for the realist work of The Eight was quickly overwhelmed by European modernism. What was viewed as progressive and innovative only five years ago had suddenly became viewed as interesting but not innovative".

Photograph of Henri believed to have been taken by photographer Clarence White in 1908.

Despite artworks that no longer ranked higher than "interesting", Henri continued to exert considerable influence through his teaching roles. He taught at the libertarian Ferrer School (a school inspired by the influential Catalonian anarchistic pedagogue, Francesco Ferrer) and, from 1915, teacher at the Arts Students League. His classes were always filled to capacity and included some of modern art's great future players such as the Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb who enrolled in his class in 1921. Henri's teachings on art were so inspiring that when the artist, and former student of Henri, Margery Ryerson approached him about turning her classroom notes into a book he agreed. The Art Spirit was published in 1923.

Much of the artmaking in the last decades of Henri's life were based on his travels overseas. In 1913, for instance, he made the first of what would be several extended trips to Ireland where he would paint both landscapes and portraits (mostly children) of the inhabitants of Achill Island. Henri also made several trips to America's Southwest where some of his most notable works were portraits of Native Americans. The summer of 1928 was to be the last period of painting for the artist who created several portraits while staying in Ireland but was forced to return to America in September when he suffered an attack of neuritis. The pain was so intense he had difficulty painting. It was eventually determined he had prostate cancer and, while it is unclear if Henri was ever made aware of that diagnosis, he succumbed to the illness less than a year later at the age of sixty-four.

Henri's passing is appended by a sad footnote. While his estate had been inherited by his loving wife, she too died less than twelve months later (also from cancer). Marjorie in turn bequeathed Henri's estate to her sister, Violet Organ, who mistakenly believed that the best of her late brother-in-law's' paintings would be worth more if they were fewer in number. As Perlman explains, over the course of several years she, "destroyed an estimated five hundred fifty of his works [...] The canvases were slashed and ripped in order to fit them into the fireplace, and then were burned in the artist's own studio!".

The Legacy of Robert Henri

Henri played a key role in advancing modern art in America at the beginning of the twentieth century; firstly through his leading role in the development of the Ashcan School, and secondly, through the sweeping change he brought to arts exhibition in America. With the former, Henri was instrumental in establishing an American school of art that left behind the pleasing idyls that characterised American Expressionism in favor of a more fluid and "immediate" urban art that captured the dynamic energy of the streets and people of New York. In the case of the latter, Henri abandoned the Academy conventions of juried shows, and through the (retrospectively named) exhibition of The Eight (1908), and the Exhibition of Independent Artists (1910), he helped lay the foundations for America's most important and influential independent exhibition of all, The Armory Show of 1913.

Equal to his reputation as an artist, was Henri's contribution to arts education. In a career teaching at various schools and in private classes, Henri implored his students to free themselves from traditional constraints, forgo the worry over competition and the attainment of prizes, and instead create art that was personal to the student; what he called "art for life's sake". Throughout his career he taught many of America's greatest modern artists including George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Adolph Gottlieb, William Groper, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Man Ray, and Morgan Russell. Moreover, his musings on art and teaching philosophies were published in the 1923 book The Art Spirit which has become a staple of fine arts education. Indeed, according to author Maria Popova, the world-renowned filmmaker and artist, David Lynch, "cites [The Art Spirit] as a major influence in the introduction to his [own] treatise on mediation and creativity [Lynch's 2006 book - Catching the Big Fish]".

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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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