Robert Henry Cozad was born on 24 June 1865 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, a real estate developer, is credited with founding the towns of Cozaddale, Ohio, and Cozad in Nebraska, but in 1882 he killed a rancher in a land dispute. Although Cozad was cleared of wrongdoing, the family fled to Denver, where they changed their names, the father becoming known as Richard Henry Lee, and his sons posing as adopted children - Robert under the surname Henri (pronounced ‘hen rye’). The family continued to move around, but, by 1886, Henri had enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Two years later, he travelled to Europe, studying at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, and embracing Impressionism. He returned to the Pennsylvania Academy, and, in 1892, began teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.
While still in Philadelphia, Henri’s vigorous ideas - moving away from Impressionism and towards a realistic portrayal of American cities - began to attract a group of followers, including illustrators for the Philadelphia Press (known as the Philadelphia Four, including John Sloan). Having married Linda Craige, one of his students, she and Henri lived in Paris in 1898-1900, Henri exhibiting at the Salon (Woman in Manteau and La Neige). On returning to the US, Henri moved to teach at the New York School of Art, where he counted Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper and George Bellows among his students. Linda died in 1905, and Henri married Marjorie Organ, a young cartoonist for the New York Journal, three years later.
In 1906, Henri was elected to the National Academy of Design, but when painters in his circle were rejected for the 1907 exhibition, he left to organise a rebel show, entitled ‘The Eight’ (involving himself, the Philadelphia Four, and three other artists) at the Macbeth Galleries. With Sloan’s help, the exhibition went on to travel to several more cities, attracting significant attention. By this time, Henri and his followers - the loose-knit Ashcan School - were depicting urban life at its toughest and most exuberant, and offending conservative mores. In 1910, with Sloan and Walt Kuhn, Henri organised the Exhibition of Independent Artists, modelled after the Salon des Indépendants in France; and in 1913, Henri exhibited at the famous Armory Show, the US’s first large-scale introduction to European Modernism. However, already by this time, Henri had come to focus his own painting more and more on portraits (such as The Beach Hat) - as acknowledged, for example, by this article in The American Magazine of Art.
From 1915 to 1928, Henri taught at the Art Students League in New York City. During these years, he also went abroad often - to Ireland and Mexico - finding both places inspirational for his painting. Although considered an important portraitist and figure painter, he is best remembered as a progressive and influential teacher. Encyclopaedia Britannica states: ‘He affected American art more through his teaching than his painting. He was instrumental in turning the young American painters of his time away from academic eclecticism toward an acceptance of the rich, real life of the modern city as the proper subject of art.’
Henri’s ideas on art were collected by Margery Ryerson, a former pupil, and published as The Art Spirit (Lippincott, Philadelphia) in 1923 - a modern edition can be previewed at Googlebooks. In 1929, Henri was named as one of the top three living US artists by the Arts Council of New York. He died just a few months later, and was honoured with a memorial exhibition of 78 paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information consult Wikipedia, the National Gallery of Art, Sullivan Goss, or Traditional Fine Arts Organization. For a list of pictures available to view online see Artcyclopaedia.
Henri kept extensive diaries during long periods of his life, and these were made available to William Innes Homer (with the assistance of Violet Organ) for his 1969 book Robert Henri and his Circle (Cornell University Press). Homer enriches his text with frequent quotes from Henri’s diaries (which otherwise have not been published). Apart from keeping a diary himself, Henri figures extensively in the published diaries of John Sloan: John Sloan’s New York Scene, edited by Bruce St. John and published by Harper & Row in 1965. See Googlebooks to preview a modern edition of Sloan’s diaries. Here, though, are several extracts from Henri’s diary, as taken from Homer’s biography.
16 November 1886
‘I claim the honour of being the revolutioniser of some parts of the Academy. It was me that persuaded W[hipple] to open the Library - was one of the agitators of the sketch class - of the opening to the Antique [class] of the modeling room, and now of the getting of a cast for the modeling room.’
17 December 1886
‘My drawing of one day was as good (better than one) as many of the drawings of five days, not that it had finish - mine was rough but looked like the man.’
28 December 1886
‘I do not think time spent at a good theatre is wasted. Good actors can present to the artist’s eye scenes that in life are only once in a lifetime.’
22 March 1887
‘I don’t like perspective. I hate it. I understand it but can’t take interest. It’s like chopping wood.’
9 April 1887
‘Good theory with earnest practice is what I want.’
19 April 1887
‘All the students were called around to see my improvement and the good things I had done. Wasn’t I as happy as a clam at high tide when I opened the door and saw Hovey lecturing over my study to all the other students! . . . To me this boom was stimulating.’
15 September 1888
‘There are none or few of the works of the [old masters] that are equal to the moderns according to my way of seeing. Now all the world says there is nothing like the old masters and that none of the moderns can compete with them. What I have seen makes me think the opposite and I place the painters of today ahead of all others. I think that the old masters were very great for their time - probably many of them were very much greater for their time than any of the moderns are for theirs. In this I am going against the “good” old laid down beliefs.’
20 September 1888 [in London]
‘[. . .] gazing at these wonderful landmarks of history - at the very things themselves! [. . .] One can get himself mixed up in old rookeries, tangled and narrow, antiquity and picturesqueness at every step - forget that he is in the 19th Century - wander about the haunts of Dickens and all that great list of English men of letters, perfectly out of the world of today, lost in delightful reveries of the past.’
1 April 1891 [in Paris]
‘I think I am nearer right than ever before . . . It is a matter of color. Bouguereau is not a colorist either in combining color or reproducing it. His color is harmonious and in some cases very fine but he is never a colorist and as for reproduction of color, he never does that. It is always the same waxy, angel like color - just a little insipid - so from this I am not inclined to put the same confidence in his criticisms on color as in other branches.’
27 April 1910
‘The exhibition was a great success as far as general notice and attendance - the crush at the opening and continued full attendance to the last day. Financially nothing happened.’
25 August 1926
‘The big movement of the whole canvas should so possess one that the change from part to part, from flesh to collar to coat to shirt or trousers should be such that, however brilliant or sharp the change of color or texture might be in these, there would be no arrest in the observer’s mind. He should be conscious of these changes, conscious of beauty in them, conscious that they are right, but his sense should be of the life that flows beneath these superficial things.’
‘Work quickly. Don’t stop for anything but the essential. (A dilatory worker has too much time to see things of little importance.) Make the draperies move, don’t let them stop. Keep the flow going. Don’t have islands of “things.” The “things,” however wonderfully done, are just what bring a picture down to the commonplace. I never really had any ambition to paint “things.’ It’s the spirit of the thing that counts.’