February 20, 2005

Reading Log: Robert Henri

American painter (1865-1929), a leading member of the Ashcan School , the anti-academic movement of the early 1900s, and a founder of the 1913 Armory Show which brought modern European painting to America. His paintings still hang in major museums, but his greatest contribution was as an art teacher of unique charisma and depth, the star instructor of the Art Students League when it was the leading producer of American artists. His students included Edward Hopper and George Bellows.

Henri’s teachings are preserved in a paperback book, THE ART SPIRIT, containing almost 300 pages of his miscellaneous observations, gathered from his in–class comments and from letters he wrote critiquing his students’ work. Much of it concerns painting technique, but for a nonpainter like myself, even that material is interesting because of the nostalgic light it throws on a time when art school meant life drawing classes and getting the folds of the drapery right. And even on technical topics, Henri’s observations open up larger realms:

“Furniture and clothes are the escape of the bad artist… Think, what do you have to *say* about that red dress and white collar?… Paint even the rungs of the model’s chair so a poem could be written about them.”

And often he goes directly to the issue itself:

“Be yourself today, don’t wait till tomorrow.”

“The only true modern movement is a frank expression of self.”

“Art is the giving by each man of his evidence to the world. Those who wish to give, love to give, discover the pleasure of giving. Those who give are tremendously strong.”

“To be free, to be happy, to be fruitful, can only be accomplished by the sacrifice of many common but overestimated things.”

“I do not want to see how skillful you are—I am not interested in your skill…Why do you paint this subject? What is life to you? What reasons and principles have you found?…What excitement, what pleasure do you get from it?”

Always he is reminding us that to learn to make art you must learn to be an artist, and to learn to be an artist you must learn to be a living human being. And if you are a fully alive human being and don’t become an artist, that’s a creative achievement of the highest kind.

On my bookshelf THE ART SPIRIT has a permanent place right beside Joanna Field’s ON NOT BEING ABLE TO PAINT. The 1984 edition is still in print and has a surprisingly high amazon sales rank (#8,058) with 13 five-star reviews.