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Robert Henri

From 1915 to 1927, Henri was a popular and influential teacher at the Art Students League of New York. “He gave his students, not a style (though some imitated him), but an attitude, an approach, [to art].” He also lectured frequently about the theories of Hardesty Maratta, Denham Waldo Ross, and Jay Hambidge (Henri’s interest in these men, whose ideas were in fashion at the time but were not taken seriously later, has proved to be “the most misunderstood aspect of [Henri’s] pedagogy.”) Maratta and Ross were color theorists (Maratta manufactured his own system of synthetic pigments), while Hambidge was the author of an elaborate treatise, Dynamic Symmetry, that argued for a scientific basis for composition. Henri’s philosophical and practical musings were collected by former pupil Margery Ryerson and published as The Art Spirit (1923), a book that remained in print for several decades. Henri’s other students include George Bellows, Arnold Franz Brasz, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Henry Ives Cobb, Jr., Lillian Cotton, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

The significance and often formative influence of Henri as a teacher and mentor to women artists was acknowledged in American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri (2005). Comparing the work of Henri’s female students to their male Ashcan School contemporaries, Marion Wardle asserts, “An examination of their experiments in many media illuminates a much broader application of Henri’s modernist ideals. …Henri’s women students contributed significantly to the structure of American modernism. They produced a large body of work, exhibited widely, won major art awards, belonged to and administered arts organizations, and taught art classes across America.”

In the spring of 1929, Henri was named as one of the top three living American artists by the Arts Council of New York. Henri died of cancer that summer at the age of sixty-four. He was eulogized by colleagues and former students and was honored with a memorial exhibition of seventy-eight paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Forbes Watson, editor of The Arts magazine wrote, “Henri, quite aside from his extraordinary personal charm, was an epoch-making man in the development of American art.” Henri was buried at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island.

Fittingly, among Henri’s most enduring works are his portraits of his fellow painters. His 1904 full-length portrait of George Luks (in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa) and his 1904 portrait of John Sloan (in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C), for example, exhibit all the classic elements of his style: forceful brushwork, intense (if dark) color effects, evocation of personality (his and the sitter’s), and generosity of spirit.