top of page
pasted image 184x369.jpg
pasted image 228x262.jpg

Robert Henri, Self-Portrait, no date

Henri, Jessica Penn in Black

            with White Plumes, 1908


The Philosophy of Robert Henri

By Jim Young

Rogers, Arkansas – September, 2017



        Since the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on 11/11/2011, I have enjoyed the privilege of immersing myself in the Museum’s collection.

Robert Henri’s masterpiece Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes (1908) was a painting that particularly appealed to my sensibilities.  Perhaps it was Jessica’s earthy countenance that appealed to the potter in me.  Perhaps it was something deep down and personal about Henri’s views of the spiritual dimension of art.

        Henri’s rangy and prolific thoughts and philosophy are found in a compilation of his lectures, letters and sayings called The Art Spirit, put together by a former student, Margery Ryerson, and published in 1923. His writings are durable and relevant today to artists, art appreciators and all people with existential and inquiring minds. Henri’s uncommon depth, skill and refinement of character are well deserving of examination in today’s world that hungers for depth, value and meaning.

        The following exploration is a distillation of Henri’s words from The Art Spirit as well as brief biological information on the artist’s life. His art speaks for itself across time and is well worth examining in the light of his own words.

         The very title of the book, The Art Spirit, begs particular consideration. Is there an art spirit? If so how does it manifest itself in his painting, in his attitude, in his teaching and in his expressions of the relevance of art that “speaks” to the soul of viewers and artists alike?


Who was Robert Henri (briefly)?

         Born June 25, 1865 in Cincinnati. Died July 12, 1929 in New York City. An urban realist painter. Leader of The Ashcan School which professed to paint art that expressed the spirit of the American people.  Members of this school included Stewart Davis, Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Rockwell Kent. It was a movement that shunned academic painting and sought to depict the energy and vitality of urban life.

        Henri’s paintings sought to celebrate the toughness and exuberance of city life. He wanted paint to be “as real as mud, as the clods of snow and horse shit that froze on Broadway in the winter”.

        Henri enrolled in the Philadelphia Academy of the Arts in 1886. He taught at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (1892), the New York School of Art(1902), and the Art Students League of New York (1915-1928). In 1906 he was elected to the National Academy of Design, and in 1929 he was named one of the three top living American artists by the Arts Council of New York. Eugene Spencer called Henri “the father of independent painting in this country”.

        Henri was not only one of America’s greatest painters but a teacher and inspiration to many students in the last 27 years of his life. “Henri projected in his teaching the fire of his own enthusiasm. He could paint, but he could also talk about painting.”(The American Magazine of Art- June 1931). “Henri was passionate about the transformative value of art and could awaken fire in his students. Henri was such an heroic figure, an emancipator. He had the gift of awakening confidence.”(Helen Farr Sloan, student).

        Henri’s passion for painting infused his art and was foundational in his evolving philosophy. He was intense and soulful and encouraged students to live deep, reflective lives.

        Art critic Robert Hughes (1909) wrote in his evaluation of Henri’s painting Salome that it displayed “more oomph than hundreds of virginal, gentile poses painted by American academics”.


Art for Life’s Sake, not Art for Art’s Sake.

        Henri’s goal was to depict the tough, gritty nature of the vibrant urban city and its people. He wanted to paint portraits in a manner that allowed the viewer to sense the souls of everyday folks. He shunned romanticized paintings. His belief was that America’s greatness was to be found in the lives and labors of ordinary people living actual, not stylized, lives. He praised Walt Whitman for his recognition of the sacred in nature and Thoreau for his admonition to simplify one’s life to that which was truly meaningful.


Henri as art teacher.

       Henri claimed that he gave his students not techniques or style but an attitude about art. He said “Through art mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them. No matter what happens on the surface, the Brotherhood goes on. It is the Evolution of Man.”(The Art Spirit, P.19)


Art must be fully lived.

       “For an artist to be interesting to us he must become interesting to himself. He must be capable of intense feeling and profound contemplation.”(P.17)


Art is for everyone.

        “Art when really understood is the province of every human being. When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive person. The world would stagnate without him, for he is interesting to others. where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums.”(P.15)


The song within.

       “There are moments in our lives when we seem to see beyond the usual – (we) become clairvoyant. We reach then into reality. Such are mementos of our greatest happiness. Such are moments of our greatest wisdom.

        It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expressions for it. At such times there is a song going on within us. It fills us with surprise. But few are capable of holding ourselves in the state of listening to their own song. Intellectuality steps in and, as the song within us is of utmost sensitiveness, it retires in the presence of the cold, material intellect, and we fall back and become our ordinary selves.

       Yet we live in the memory of these songs which in moments of intellectual inadvertence may have been possible to us. These are the pinnacles of our experience and it is the desire to express these intimate expressions, this song from within, that motivates the masters of all art.”(pp.44-45)


Appreciating art.

       “All manifestations of art are but landscapes in the progress of the human spirit toward a thing but as yet sensed and far from being possessed.

        The man who has honesty, integrity, the love of inquiry, the desire to see beyond is ready to appreciate good art. He needs no one to give him an art education; he is already qualified.”(P.66)


Art as a consequence of growth.

         “Art is the inevitable consequence of growth and is the manifestation of the principles of its origin. The work of art is a result, is the output of a progress in development that stands as a record and marks the degree of development. The work is not a finality. It promises more, and from it projection can be made.” (P.67)


Everyone is an artist.

        “Art appears in many forms. To some degree every human being is an artist, dependent on the quality of his growth. Art need not be intended. It comes as inevitably as the tree from the root.”(P.67)



        “Originality. Don’t worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick to you and show you up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”(P.78)


Art as a search for expression.

        “The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination of which he was so fully endowed as a child, and which, unfortunately in all cases, the contact with grown-ups shames out of him before he has passed into what is understood as real life.

          The art student should be the one whose life is spent in love and the culture of his personal sensations, the cherishing of his own emotions, the pleasure of exclaiming them to others, and as an eager search for their clearest expression.” (pp.79-80)


Art as expression of individuality.

          “Every individual should study his own individuality to the end of knowing his tastes, he should cultivate the pleasures so discovered and find the most direct means of expressing those pleasures to others, thereby enjoying them all over again.

           Art after all is but an extension of language to the expression of sensations too subtle for words.”(P.87)


Art as a great mental and spiritual activity.

           “The appreciation of art should not be considered as merely a pleasurable pastime. To appreciate beauty is to work for it.

            When the motives of artists are profound, when they are at their work and a result of deep consideration, when they believe in the importance of what they are doing, their work creates a stir in the world.

             The true character of the student is one of great mental and spiritual activity. He creates a disturbance from those who have in them his kind of blood - the student blood. Discussion runs high. There is life in the air.”(pp.102-104)


Art as expression of ideas.

            “Painting is the expression of ideas in their permanent form. It is the giving of evidence. It is the study of our lives, our environment. The American who is useful as an artist is one who studies his own life and records his experiences; in this way he gives evidence.

             The undercurrent and motive of all art is an individual man’s ideas.”(pp.116- 117)


Art in the community.

           “Art in the community has a subtle, unconscious, refining influence. It practically means that the presence of good art will unconsciously refine a community and that poor art will do it incalculable harm.”(P.117)


The artist as an imaginer.

           “A great artist is both a great imaginer and a great employer of practical science. First there must be the man, then the techniques.”(P.119)


Great art comes from artists who live fully.

           “The best art the world has ever had is but the impress left by men who have thought less of making great art than of living fully and completely with all their faculties in the enjoyment of full play. From these men the result is inevitable.”(P.122)

Skills are secondary to artists’ depth.

           “I do not want to see how skillful you are - I am not interested in your skill. What do you get out of nature? Why do you paint this subject? What reasons and what principles have you found? What excitement, what pleasure do you get out of it? Your skill is the thing of least interest to me.”(P.127)


The pursuit of happiness is a great activity.

            “The pursuit of happiness is a great activity. One must be open and alive. It is the greatest feat man has to accomplish, and spirits must flow. There must be courage.

             There are no easy ruts to get into which lead to happiness. A man must become interesting to himself and must become actually expressive before he can be happy.

              It takes wit and interest and energy to be happy.”(pp.141-142)


“My people”. Finding dignity and order in the world.

           “The people I like to paint are “my people”, whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom the dignity of life is manifest, that is, who are in some way expressing themselves naturally along the lines nature intended for them.

           Everywhere I see at times this beautiful expression of the dignity of life, to which I respond with a wish to preserve this beauty for humanity, for my friends to enjoy.

          This thing I call dignity in a human being is inevitably the result of an established order in the universe. Everything that is beautiful is orderly, and there can be no order unless things are in their right relation to each other.

          Of this right relation throughout the world beauty is born. This orderliness must exist or the world could not hold together.”(pp.143-144)


Fear and artificiality as blocks to seeing beauty.

        “We are living in a strange civilization. Our minds and souls are so overladen with fear, with artificiality, that we do not recognize beauty. It is this fear, this lack of direct vision of truth, that brings about all the disaster the world holds, and how little opportunity we give any people for casting off fear, for living simply and naturally.”(P.146)


Slaves vs. free people.

        “There are two classes of human beings. One has ideas, but modifies them to bring about “success”. The other class has ideas which it believes in and must carry out absolutely; success or no success.

         The first c

lass has a tremendous majority, and they are all slaves. The second class are the only free people in the world.”(P.155)


Making art as a way of making life.

         “I am not interested in art as a means of living but I am interested in art as a means of living a life. Art is certainly not a pursuit for anyone who wants to make money. There are ever so many better ways.

          It is for this reason that art study should not be directed towards a commercial end. Educational institutions should assist the student to a better understanding of the meaning of the word “art” and the need of study and individual development,”(pp.158-159)


Painting as a means of attaining a high state of existence.

         “The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture - however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is in back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence - a higher state.

         Each time the artist attains the state he gains not only the greater life of the moment but an effect on the mind and body. The reason so many artists have lived to great age and have been so young at great age is that to such extent they have “lived living”, where most people “live dying.”(pp.159-161)


Freedom as a necessary condition for creating art.

        ”Things being as they are, the life of an artist is a battle wherein great economy must be exercised. The kind of economy will result in moments of the purest freedom in spite of the world’s exactions.

         If one is a painter this purist freedom must exist at the time of painting. This is as much as to say that a painter may give up his hope of making his living as a painter but must make it some other way.

         I was once asked by a young artist whether he could hope to earn any money from his work. I advised him to do whatever he needed to do to make a living if by so doing he could feel free to paint as he liked.”(P.162)


Self-acquaintance and ongoing striving as success.

          “Think less of the success of the by-product and you will have more success at it. It is not easy to know what you like. Most people fool themselves their entire lives through about this.

           Self-acquaintance is a rare condition. There are men who, at the bottom of the ladder, battle to rise; they study, struggle, keep their wits alive and eventually get up to where they are received as equal among respectable intellectuals. Here they find warmth and comfort for their pride, and here the struggle ends, and a death of many years commences.

           They could have gone on living.”(P.165)


The art spirit of Robert Henri and Walt Whitman.

           Because Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Robert Henri ((1865-1929) were contemporaries, and because Henri greatly admired Whitman’s poetry and personal example, it is fitting to conclude this examination of art spirit by seeing how both men’s art forms were vehicles for spiritual attainment.

           Robert Henri said: “Old Walt Whitman, to his last days, was a child in the greatness and the fullness of his fancy. Walt Whitman was such as I have proposed that the real art student should be. His work is an autobiography- not of haps and mishaps, but of his deepest thought, his life indeed.”(P.84)

           Whitman’s art was poetry that made the interconnection between the physical and the soul. “I am the poet of the Body, and I am the poet of the Soul.”(from Song of Myself)

           Henri’s art was painting that required freedom, intense feeling and profound contemplation. His stated goal was no less than to make visible the established order and beauty of the universe.

           The intensity and passion of Whitman and Henri would seem to place both in Henri’s “Brotherhood of artists”. Both created fearlessly from an elevated state of consciousness. Both men believed that their gifts would “outlast their time on earth. Both experienced joy in their life work. Whitman: “Oh the joy of my spirit - it is uncaged - it darts like lightening!”( from A Song of Joys). Henri: “It is only in creative work that joy may be found.”( P.227)

          Henri declared “Life is finding yourself. It is spirit development.” (P.241)


Finding our inner song.

          Robert Henri taught that we each have an “inner song” that we can attune

ourselves to hear. It may “fill us with surprise”. We may find it difficult to maintain the state of listening to our song. We may need to course correct many times. The journey and the elevated feelings it provides are themselves reason to keep searching and nurturing the “utmost sensitiveness” that can seem to retire “in the presence of the cold, material intellect”. (pp.44-45)

          Henri wrote: “ When America is an art country, there will not be three or seven arts, but there will be thousands of arts - the art of life manifesting in every man, be it painting or whatever.”(pp.188-189). And further he added: “If you have the idea that an artist is not a decidedly practical person, get over it! Keeping one’s faculties in full exercise is the secret of good health and longevity. Perhaps mental inactivity is the most fatiguing thing in the world.”(pp.190-191)

bottom of page