Born Robert Henri Cozad in Spence’s Station (later changed to Cozaddale), Ohio in 1865 (his birth was registered in Cincinnati), Robert was to become one of the most influential teachers and artists in the history of American art. He grew up in the town of Cozad, Nebraska which his father John Cozad founded, but left with his family in 1882 after his father shot and killed a man in a land dispute. Cozad was later exonerated, but by then the family members had moved to Denver, Colorado and changed their names to avoid detection. Robert changed his last name when he was 17 to Henri, which he pronounced “hen-rye” to rhyme with buckeye to remind him of his Ohio birthplace. When later applying to Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (in which he got accepted on his third try) he learned that his name is pronounced “on-ree.”
The family moved in 1883 to New York City and then to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Robert discovered his love of painting and in 1886 enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His instructors there were Thomas Anshutz, James B. Kelly and Thomas Hovenden. In 1888 he left for the Academie Julian in Paris to study with William Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury before attending the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts. Upon his return to the US in 1891 he resumed his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy under Robert Vonnoh. By 1892 Henri had begun to teach art at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. About the same time he gathered some of his followers to sketch and discuss the philosophy of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emile Zola and Henry David Thoreau. At this “Charcoal Club” is where Henri met John Sloan who was at that time an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press. Three other painters who made up the “Philadelphia Four” group of painters with Sloan were William Glackens, George Luks and Everett Shinn.
By 1895 Robert was already questioning not only the traditional training he had gotten but also the impressionist style, which he now called the “new academicism.” He was introduced to the practice of painting on pochades, tiny wood panels that could be easily carried anywhere to capture spontaneous scenes on the street. This was an important introduction to the emotional realism he became known for. He was impressed by the realist style of Dutch painter Franz Hals, and taught his students to really observe and quickly capture their own interpretation of the essence of their subject matter.
While on a trip to Paris in 1898, the French government purchased his painting La Neige (The Snow) for the Musee du Luxembourg. Upon his return in 1902 Henri taught at the Chase School of Art and the New York School of Art, where his students included George Bellows, Maurice Becker, Stuart Davis, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper. It was during this same period of time that he primarily left landscape painting to take up portrait work. He continued to travel for the rest of his life, but the work was portraiture of interesting people he met on his journeys.
He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1906 but left after his fellow jurors rejected the work of his fellow artists for the 1907 exhibition. He referred to the Academy as a “cemetery of art” and set about forming a group show of his own. His show at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908 was called “The Eight” because of the eight artists showing their work. Added to the “Philadelphia Four” and Henri were Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson and Arthur B. Davies. This group would later be associated with the Ashcan School, though the term was not used until 1934. This name represented a change from subject matter reflecting “public taste” to painting the everyday street scenes – whether or not they were considered something of beauty. This kind of artwork became known as Social Realism.
Some of his most important work was created between 1913-1916, including his portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of Art. Henri’s wife Marjorie and her sister were often his models. He had five paintings in the 1913 Armory Show. Henri’s many travels to California and New Mexico produced numerous paintings of Native American and Oriental people. In later years many of his portraits were of children. He would say he was after the “freshness and wonder of their spirit”. In New Mexico alone he painted over 245 oil paintings as well as sketches in pastel, pencil and watercolor. In 1918 he was invited to become an honorary member of the Taos Society of Artists. He taught at the Art Students League from 1925 to 1928. His book called The Art Spirit was published in 1923 and had a profound impact on students throughout America and Europe. Henri was chosen as one of the top three living American artists by the Arts Council of New York in the spring of 1929. That summer he died of cancer in Manhattan.
He was awarded the silver medal in 1904 at the Universal Exposition in St. Louis; the Harris Medal at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1905; Art Club, Philadelphia in 1909; Beck Gold Medal, PAFA in 1914; Pan-Pacific Exposition Silver Medal in 1915 and Wilmington Society of Fine Arts Silver Medal in 1920. His work is included in collections in the LA County Museum, the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Memphis Museum, San Diego Museum and many others. He was honored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a memorial exhibition in 1931.
The Art Spirit by Robert Henri
Hunter Museum of American Art
The Portraits of Robert Henri by Dr. Valerie Ann Leeds
Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York
Robert Henri & His Circle by J. Nicoll
A special thanks goes to Jan Patterson, Executive Director of the Robert Henri Museum and Historial Walkway in Cozad, NE.