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Robert Henri

(1865—1929) American painter

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(b Cincinnati, 24 June 1865; d New York, 12 July 1929).

American painter, teacher, and writer, a major figure in combating conservative attitudes in American art in the early 20th century. From 1886 to 1888 he trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, under Thomas Anshutz (1851–1912), who passed on the tradition of Thomas Eakins, an artist Henri came to admire deeply. In 1888–91 he lived in Paris, studying mainly at the Académie Julian. After returning to Philadelphia he became the leader of a circle of young arists—Glackens, Luks, Shinn, Sloan—that later became the nucleus of The Eight and the Ashcan School. In 1895–7 and 1898–1900 he again lived in Paris, then in 1900 settled in New York. There he became an outstanding teacher, first at the New York School of Art, 1902–9, then at his own school, 1909–12, at the Modern School of the Ferrer Center (a radical educational establishment), 1911–18, and finally at the Art Students League, 1915–28. The essence of his teaching was that art should grow from life, not from theories. He said that he wanted his own paintings to be ‘as clear and as simple and sincere as is humanly possible’, and he was a powerful force in turning young American painters away from academism to look at the rich subject matter provided by modern urban life; indeed he was ‘regarded by many of his contemporaries as the most influential single force affecting the development of American art in the generation preceding the Armory Show of 1913’ (William Innes Homer, Robert Henri and his Circle, 1969). Henri was open-minded about the new developments seen at the Armory Show but he was not interested in experiment for experiment's sake and his own painting was little affected by it. His early work had been Impressionist, but in the 1890s he adopted a darker palette, with rapid slashing brushwork geared to creating a sense of vitality and immediacy. From 1909 his work became more colourful again. Apart from scenes of urban life, he painted many portraits, and also landscapes and seascapes (which have been rather neglected). He made frequent visits to Europe and found inspiration there for figure studies of picturesque characters—Irish peasants, gypsies, and so on. His paintings are dashing but rather superficial and they are generally regarded as much less important than his teaching and crusading. Henri wrote numerous articles on art and in 1923 published The Art Spirit, a collection of his letters, lectures, and aphorisms, in which art is seen as an expression of love for life.

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