Out in Monday’s sunshine I was patio-painting and one of Robert Henri’s thoughts kept doing stuff to me: “Don’t paint the material. Push on to paint the spirit.” I’m always looking for the spirit. Later, when checking the studio inbox, there was a note from Phil Mix: “I notice you often quote Robert Henri. I once recommended to someone that there were very few books as inspirational and straightforward as The Art Spirit. This book is as good as a teacher. I studied it religiously as a student at Alberta College of Art some thirty years ago. His emphasis on memory drawing still influences my work. Henri has formed many of my core concepts.”
Robert Henri (1865-1929) was an American painter who taught at the Art Student’s League in New York. Early on he was a pupil of Thomas Eakins. Later he studied in France with A. W. Bouguereau and was influenced by Manet and members of the “Spanish School.” His life was a progression of creative understanding and self-examination. Hardly conservative at all, his concept that an artist might become a social force has primed the pump for many a conceptual one. He believed that art had unique dignity and ought to feast in the lushness of contemporary humanity. A commanding and inventive instructor, he tied art-making with a blinding love of life. His famous book came out in 1923. With a thoughtful reading from time to time, you can top up your creative tank. You can well see why his ideas are sought in today’s creative environment. One of his ideas was to have the model in one room and the painters in another. Back and forth like retrievers go the art students carrying their sticks of visual knowledge.
With Henri the wisdom of doing art is a given. You go past the wish list, the wishy-washy and the woo-woo — straight to the canvas. Who can resist the directness of “Paint like a fiend when the idea possesses you.” Or the wisdom of “Masters are faulty. They haven’t learned everything, and they know it.” And the kind permission of “All the past up to a moment ago is your legacy. You have a right to it.”
Living, dead, and yet to be born, there is a kinship between creative people. We share similar goals and aspirations, as well as similar technologies and their ongoing problems. Then there’s the potential of similar joys. Henri’s teachings and his ideas about teaching are eternal.
PS: “By my teaching I hope to inspire you to personal activity and to present your vision.” (Robert Henri)
Esoterica: Henri’s impulses led to the emergence of a new direction in American realism. It’s now known as “The Ash-can School.” His own work was often dark and moody. He was often criticized for being “superficial.” That’s someone blowing through his hat. I’ve asked Andrew to put up a few of Robert Henri’s paintings. See below.
Robert Henri (1865-1929)
Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit gathers the essential beliefs and theories of the great teacher and American artist. “I would give anything to have come by this book years ago. It is… comparable only to the notes of Leonardo and Sir Joshua… One of the finest voices… of modern men in painting.” (George Bellows)
The Brotherhood and Sisterhood
by Ion Vincent Danu, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
It so happens that these days I’m reading The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. And because you mentioned that there is a kinship between creative people, I’m sending the precise citation where Henri spoke about this kinship:
“Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them. The Brotherhood is powerful. It has many members. They are of all places and of all times. The members do not die. One is member to the degree that he can be member, no more, no less. And that part of him that is of the Brotherhood does not die.” (p. 19, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, Icon Editions, Harper & Row, 1984)
Book eliminates the confusion
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa, FL, USA
I always begin teaching a class by reading from The Art Spirit. I feel quotes and conversations by Robert Henri are the perfect way to eliminate the confusion of the day and to help one focus on the job at hand… pushing on to paint the spirit. How frustrating to think if I had only been born a good bit earlier I just might have had a chance to have met him! But we are so fortunate Robert Henri was not only a master at painting, but a writer and instructor who cared enough to correspond with his students and thus leave us not only paintings but words by which to create. My first Art Spirit collapsed from over use. I am now on my second with a third in reserve.
True honesty and no nonsense
by Helen Scott, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
For seven wonderful years we had an “Art Students League” of Colorado Springs (with the blessing of the New York Art Students League) and the Art Students League of Denver is still going strong. One of our instructors was devoted to the teachings of Robert Henri, as I am now. As a fledgling art instructor at our local community college who knows she is very faulty, I have found that my students are very forgiving and we have a wonderful time being immersed in drawing and painting and studying and learning together. I, too, like Henri’s “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” approach to painting. True honesty and no nonsense!
A brilliant day
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
Today was a “push on to paint the spirit” day, except we didn’t need to push, the spirit was already there: brilliant sun, huge billowy clouds, crystal clear air, west wind so strong it blew the brush out of my hand, and all this in an undiscovered part of the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada. No cars, no tourists, no boom boxes — but fringed blue gentian bursting from the Earth’s crusty alvar alongside goldenrod, vermilion hawkweed, masses of unidentifiable frothy white wildflowers, against a friendly September sky. Paradise. Every painting reflected the blowy bright day and our hearts were full to bursting with the pure joy of being able to paint in such a glorious spot. Days like these, you know what Robert Henri was talking about.
Uses Henri at Art Center
by Nan Nalder, Seattle, WA, USA
I volunteer as an artist/mentor at the Sanctuary Art Center here in Seattle, where we serve homeless youth in the University District. Many of our guests are working towards their GED and the Center is accredited by the Seattle School District for the purpose of instructing youth in Art. I quote Robert Henri often and have provided paperback copies of his excellent book. It is well thumbed through!
Impressed by a painter
by Pam Flanders, Portland, OR, USA
I have loved Robert Henri’s book and have referred to it many times. It is full of inspiration and empowerment. In my latest move it must have gotten misplaced from eye level and is temporarily out of sight. Also thanks for the information that some of Henri’s impulses led to the emergence of the “Ash Can School” which I hadn’t known before. My interest in that group was stimulated in one of my very first trips to the Chicago Art Institute. I saw an awesome painting by Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones entitled The Shoe Shop(1912). I was mesmerized by the painting style and subject matter yet found very little about this artist at the institute or in art literature. I would love to have seen more of her originals.
(RG note) Thanks, Pam. Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1885-1968), was exhibiting and selling her watercolors and oil paintings at the age of 18. The New York Times called her “the find of the year.” Capturing the attention of the American art world of the early 1900s, Sparhawk-Jones painted lighthearted scenes of contemporary life in a fresh, painterly style — mothers and their children strolling in parks and women shopping or reading.
Chinese brush captures spirit
by Becky McMahon, Surrey, BC, Canada
I’ve spent a lifetime being a careful observer of the natural world and delight in catching a glimpse of the hidden side of life. Chinese Brush painting encourages me to capture the moment. I find it helps me to see beyond the details and find the spirit of what I’m painting. I aim to have the essential elements of my subject with the beauty of line combined with movement. Like Henri, I work from memory but when I need to clarify the image I research from books or best of all from life. Sketching will make the details stick in my head. These details are what get in the way when I paint from life directly. I find I want to show it all and end up with a muddle. For me, working from memory frees me up to paint only what is important to that picture.
The spirit is kindred
by Jan Rosgen, Surrey, BC, Canada
A few years ago I was lucky to have bought a 2nd-hand copy of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, not knowing who he was, but intrigued by the little bits I read while standing at the bookshelves. I dip into it once in awhile — great for taking along to read on the ferry — and it’s amazing to me that I have yet to come across a passage that I haven’t already thought myself. Our paintings are not alike, but the spirit, yes the spirit is kindred! It would have been a wonderful experience to have been a student in his classes.
Memory of a great teacher
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
George De Groat was one of my great teachers. He died 10 years ago. He still teaches me in spirit. I can hear him talking to me while I paint. “Paint from the inside out” he would say. “Don’t be concerned with the visual reproduction of nature, do not be a slave to your eye.” Other sayings of his were “first the dog, then the fleas,” reminding me to look at the big shapes first. “Nothing is better than a good drawing.” “Why are you painting this subject, what are you trying to convey?” “You can’t go wrong with the use of red, every painting should have red in it.” “Don’t be intimidated by your materials.” — he would paint on anything, including wall paper — and last but not least, “Sign it and ship it.” Sometimes he didn’t say much. He would stand at your easel and get to know you and your painting. He wanted you to find out who you were, discover your inner artist. He was a guide. One day he was by my easel and stood there for what felt like an eternity. I finally said, “What’s the matter George?” He said, “Nothing, you are painting like a God Dam genius.” George will be part of me always. It was an honor to know him and to be taught by him.
Not bothered when Ben is around
by Sally Pollard, Weiser, ID, USA
In response to Bonnie Butler’s inquiry about how to deal with the public when painting en plein air, I have a great story about my friend Joann who goes out into the Mojave to paint. She was often threatened by scary dudes coming on to her as a woman alone and vulnerable. Her solution was to build a papier mache man and place him reading a book next to her in a lawn chair. She cut her hair to give him hair and a beard and named him, “Ben.” No creeps bothered her when she had Ben around. One time though she stopped on the way home to buy some donuts. Some cops took a close up look at Ben. They laughed and told her it was illegal to keep somebody locked up against their will in a car and also reminded her not to use “him” as a passenger in the carpool lane of the freeway!
Unfair donation rules
by Edie Pfeifer, Hermosa Beach, CA, USA
I have heard from other artists that seem to know what they are talking about, that here in the U.S. you can only deduct the cost of materials for a charitable donation of your art. This does not apply if you donate art from your collection by another artist. According to this, even if a piece of yours sold at a charity auction for many hundreds of dollars, you could only deduct the actual cost of the paint, canvas, frame, or other such material, for tax purposes. On the other hand, if you are a rich collector, and donate art, you get the full price as a tax write-off. Doesn’t seem fair, but then what is? Many times people will use the “tax deduction” line to persuade artists to donate; unaware of the way it actually works.
(RG note) Thanks, Edie. Consider trading one of your works of art with one of similar value from a fellow artist. Now donate his and he’ll donate yours. Claim the full value of the gift as if you were one of those rich collectors you were talking about. I don’t guarantee this will work, but if it doesn’t, please drop us all a note from the slammer.
How can paintings benefit mankind?
by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA
In my years as a student, I was introduced to the thoughts of this great teacher, Robert Henri. I’ve embraced the life and philosophy as best I can but I need to send this question out to those who may be much wiser than me. Watching the unbelievable events that have unfolded this week for so many in the gulf coast area, how does one justify spending time each day doing what we so passionately love? How do my paintings benefit mankind? Is anyone else out there having trouble putting their heart and soul into their work when people are dying for lack of others not reaching out and helping?
I live in Florida and experienced three of the four hurricanes last year. Maybe my minor discomforts resonate too closely. What would Robert Henri say?
Artists and Katrina
by Bev Willis, Fresno, CA, USA
Reading what you wrote about Robert Henri made me think even more about the horrible circumstances thousands are experiencing right now after the horrific Katrina Hurricane struck the Southern coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. I wonder if there is something we artists bound together by the Robert Genn letters might be able to do to help these people.
(RG note) Thanks, Bev. And thanks to all artists who wrote expressing concern, offering help and giving sources of information. Bev, among others, has offered to donate a painting. We have found in the past for disasters such as this that it’s a good idea to pledge a certain amount — say 25% from your very next sale and just send it on to the Red Cross. That’s what I’m doing. This keeps the business simple and avoids the complexities of setting up and managing your own infrastructure and fundraiser. Incidentally, if you happen to be making your donation using a Discover card, Discover will add an additional 20% to your donation. Here’s where to go:
Red Cross Help the Victims of Hurricane Katrina
Further, there’s a page of links to stories and resources relating to the cultural world and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Hurricane Katrina & The Arts
Terry Teachout and Our Girl in Chicago’s list of hurricane-related links and blogs
Tyler Green has a list of arts-related hurricane links.
Kristin Sosnowsky, Managing Director of Louisiana State University’s Swine Palace Productions, is helping to set up a relief program. “We would like to appeal to our fellow arts organizations across the country to participate in what we are calling the Arts United for Hurricane Relief program. We are asking that organizations consider ways to solicit hurricane relief donations.”
All the World’s a Stage
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes James Kay who wrote, “Robert Henri’s idea of the model in one room, and the artist in another, is the way I have worked forever. As a sculptor, I feel the only way I can attempt to capture the emotional content of a piece is by internal feelings, not by external sight. You can have the idea in one ‘room’ of your mind, and you can watch the figure develop in the ‘room’ between your hands.”
And also Katherine Trokey Atlanta, GA who wrote, “Painting the spirit is what I have always tried to put into words to those who view my paintings. I never quite get the right verbal explanation to give to them, but here it is… While my paintings are definitely representational, I focus so much more on the life and spirit of the color in my flowers.”
And also Ann Painter Renard who wrote, “Thanks for bringing up the importance of looking to the past as well as within ourselves to find wisdom and information that feeds our own work.”