Robert Henri, American Realist Painter of the Ashcan School

Robert Henri
American painter Robert Henri, 1921.

E. O. Hoppe / Getty Images

Robert Henri (born Robert Henry Cozad; 1865-1929) was an American realist painter who rebelled against academic art and helped lay the groundwork for the artistic revolutions of the twentieth century. He led the Ashcan School movement and organized the pivotal exhibition, "The Eight."

Fast Facts: Robert Henri

  • Full Name: Robert Henry Cozad
  • Profession: Painter
  • Style: Ashcan School realism
  • Born: June 24, 1865 in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Died: July 12, 1929 in New York, New York
  • Spouses: Linda Craige (died 1905), Marjorie Organ
  • Education: Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and Academie Julian in Paris, France
  • Selected Works: "Night on Boardwalk" (1898), "The Masquerade Dress" (1911), "Irish Lad" (1913)
  • Notable Quote: "Good composition is like a suspension bridge—each line adds strength and takes none away."

Early Life and Education

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, as Robert Henry Cozad, the young Robert Henri was the son of a real estate developer, John Jackson Cozad, and a distant cousin of American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. In 1871, Henri's father started the community of Cozaddale, Ohio, with his family. In 1873, they moved to Nebraska and started the town of Cozad. The latter, just north of the Platte River, grew to a community of nearly 4,000.

In 1882, Henri's father shot a rancher, Alfred Pearson, to death in the midst of a conflict over cattle pasturing rights. Although cleared of any crimes, the Cozad family feared retribution from residents of the town, and they moved to Denver, Colorado. The Cozads also changed their names to protect themselves. John Cozad became Richard Henry Lee, and young Robert posed as an adopted son named Robert Henri. In 1883, the family moved to New York City and then finally settled in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Robert Henri entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia as a student in 1886. He studied with Thomas Anshutz, who was a close colleague of realist painter Thomas Eakins. Henri continued his studies in Paris, France, in 1888 at the Academie Julian. During that period, Henri developed an admiration of impressionism. His early paintings follow the impressionist tradition.

robert henri girl seated by the sea
"Girl Seated by the Sea" (1893). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ashcan School

Gifted as a teacher, Robert Henri soon found himself surrounded by a closely-knit group of fellow artists. The first of those groups became known as the "Philadelphia Four" and included realist painters William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shin, and John Sloan. Eventually calling themselves the Charcoal Club, the group discussed the work of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emile Zola in addition to their theories about art.

By 1895, Robert Henri began to reject impressionism. He referred to it disparagingly as "new academicism." In its place, he urged painters to create more realistic art rooted in everyday American life. He scorned the creation of "surface art" by the impressionists. The bold brushwork of James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Edouard Manet, and Diego Velazquez, viewed on trips to Europe, inspired Henri. The Charcoal Club followed their leader in the new direction, and soon the new approach to realistic painting was referred to as the Ashcan School. The artists embraced the title as a tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to other movements.

Henri's painting "Night on Boardwalk" shows the thick, heavy brushstrokes of a new, more brutal style of art. Henri adopted the motto "art for life's sake," in place of the more traditional "art for art's sake." Ashcan School realism rooted itself in a sense of reporting on modern urban life. The artists saw immigrant and working-class life in New York City as worthy subject matter for painters. Cultural observers drew parallels between the Ashcan School painters and emerging realist fiction by Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris.

robert henri night on boardwalk
"Night on Boardwalk" (1898). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Robert Henri's teaching positions helped enhance his reputation as a painter. His first position as an instructor was at Philadelphia's School of Design for Women in 1892. Hired by the New York School of Art in 1902, his students included Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, and Stuart Davis. In 1906, the National Academy of Design elected Henri to membership. However, in 1907, the academy rejected work by Henri's fellow Ashcan painters for an exhibition, and he accused them of bias and walked out to organize his own show. Later, Henri called the Academy, "a cemetery of art."

The Eight

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Henri's reputation as a gifted portrait painter grew. In painting ordinary people and his fellow artists, he followed his ideas about democratizing art. His wife, Marjorie Organ, was one of his favorite subjects. The painting "The Masquerade Dress" is one of Henri's best-known paintings. He presents his subject directly to the viewer in a non-romanticized fashion.

robert henri masquerade dress
"The Masquerade Dress" (1911). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Robert Henri helped organize a 1908 exhibition titled "The Eight" in recognition of the eight artists represented in the show. In addition to Henri and the Charcoal Club, the exhibition included Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and Arthur B. Davies, who painted mostly outside of the realist style. Henri considered the show to be a protest against the narrow taste of the National Academy of Design, and he sent the paintings on the road to cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

In 1910, Henri helped organize the Exhibition of Independent Artists, deliberately designed as an egalitarian show without a jury or awarding of prizes. The paintings were hung alphabetically to emphasize the point. It included almost five hundred works by more than one hundred artists.

Although Henri's realistic work did not fit in with the avant-garde works that made up most of the landmark 1913 Armory Show, he did participate with five of his paintings. He knew that his style would soon be outside of the leading edge of contemporary art. Still, his bold steps declaring freedom from academic art laid much of the groundwork for artists to explore in new directions in the twentieth century.

Later Career and Travels

In 1913, the year of the Armory Show, Robert Henri traveled to the west coast of Ireland and rented a house near Dooagh on Achill Island. There, he painted many portraits of children. They are some of the most sentimental pieces he created in his career, and they sold well to collectors when he returned to the U.S. Henri purchased the rental house in 1924.

robert henri irish lad
"Irish Lad" (1913). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Santa Fe, New Mexico, was another favorite destination. Henri traveled there in the summers of 1916, 1917, and 1922. He became a leading light in the town's developing art scene and encouraged fellow artists George Bellows and John Sloan to visit.

Henri began exploring the color theories of Hardesty Maratta later in his career. His 1916 portrait of socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Museum of American Art, demonstrates the new, almost garish style he adopted.

In November 1928, while returning to the U.S. after a visit to his Irish home, Henri fell ill. He became progressively weaker over the next several months. In the spring of 1929, the Arts Council of New York named Robert Henri one of the top three living American artists. He died a few short months later in July 1929.

Legacy

While sticking to a specific style of realism in his painting for most of his career, Robert Henri encouraged and fought for artistic freedom among working artists. He disdained the rigidity of academic art and supported a more open and egalitarian approach to exhibitions.

Perhaps Henri's most important legacy is his teaching and influence on his students. In recent years, he's been particularly recognized for his embrace of women as artists during a time in which many in the art world did not take them seriously.

robert henri gertrude vanderbilt whitney
"Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney" (1916). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Source

  • Perlman, Bennard B. Robert Henri: His Life and Art. Dover Publications, 1991.