Born in Cincinnati in 1865, Robert Henri was the leader of the group of early 20th century realists known as The Eight. Through his teaching and writing, as well as through his art, he served as a vital source of inspiration for two generations of artists up until the second world war.
The son of a real estate and property developer, Henri was raised as Robert Henry Cozad in the Midwestern states of Ohio and Nebraska. In 1882 after his father shot a man in self-defense, the family moved to Denver, Colorado, and then to Atlantic City, changing their surname to Henri. After developing an interest in art at an early age, Henri enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1886. There, the realist tradition of Thomas Eakins was passed on to him by Thomas Anshutz and Thomas Hovenden. Two years later he went to Paris, taking further instruction at the Académie Julian and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Although, as a student, he was initially trained in a tight, academic manner, he soon came under the influence of Impressionism, which he explored with a dark palette. Returning to Philadelphia in 1891, he studied briefly with the Impressionist painter Robert Vonnoh. One year later, he joined the faculty of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, beginning what would become a long and influential teaching career. During these years, he attracted a number of younger painters to his studio (such as John Sloan, William Glackens and Everett Shinn), where he would expound on a variety of topics ranging from creative independence to philosophical anarchism.
During the mid-1890s, on a second trip to Paris, Henri abandoned impressionism. In its place, he developed a dark-toned, broad painting style based on the work of such realists as Velasquez, Hals and Manet. He subsequently had two of his portraits selected for the Salons of 1896 and 1897, and in 1899, his street scene, La Neige, was purchased for the Luxembourg Museum.
After visiting Spain in 1900, Henri returned to America, establishing himself in New York. He quickly developed a reputation as an important portraitist and figure painter. He also became a leading spokesman for younger artists, advocating both realism and freedom of expression. His popularity increased even further when he became an instructor at William Merritt Chase's New York School of Art. In the summer of 1903, Henri visited Monhegan Island, Maine, for the first time. During a six-week sojourn on the island, he produced a series of pochades, spontaneous works portraying the sea and Monhegan’s dramatic rocky outcroppings. He took additional trips to the island in the summers of 1904, 1911, and 1918. While there in 1911, he worked with special vigor, featuring such sites in directly painted works as the boat landing, a ledge overlooking the island’s headlands, and the dense forest known as Cathedral Woods.
In 1908, in reaction against the conservative exhibition policies of the National Academy of Design, Henri helped organize the first exhibition of The Eight at the Macbeth Gallery. Also dubbed the “Ashcan School,” the group (which included Sloan, Glackens, Shinn, George Luks, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson and Maurice Prendergast), focused for the most part on depictions of daily life in urban settings. Although the art world was shocked at their approach, this exhibition is now viewed as a milestone in the development of American realism.
In his own work, Henri concentrated on personality and gesture rather than on anatomical detail, using quick, dramatic brushwork to suggest his forms and capture the essence of his subject. In addition to portraits, figure subjects and city views, he also painted landscapes. After 1906, he traveled widely in search of picturesque subjects, visiting Spain, Ireland and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Henri stands as a seminal figure in the history of twentieth-century American art through his promotion of realism and his role as a spokesman for liberal exhibition opportunities. As a teacher, he was a highly influential force in the development of a generation of artists that included George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Rockwell Kent. From 1911 until 1918, he taught at the radically-oriented Ferrer Center School, where his classes were attended by such artists as Moses Soyer and Man Ray. He also gave instruction at the Art Students' League (1915-1928) and in 1923, published his artistic philosophies in The Art Spirit.
Henri died in New York in 1929. Examples of his work can be found in major public and private collections throughout the United States and abroad. They include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
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