The Art Spirit
“Art when really understood is the province of every human being.” So begins The Art Spirit, the collected words, teachings, and wisdom of innovative artist and beloved teacher Robert Henri. Henri, who painted in the Realist style and was a founding member of the Ashcan School, was known for his belief in interactive nature of creativity and inspiration, and the enduring power of art. Since its first publication in 1923, The Art Spirit, has been a source of inspiration for artists and creatives from David Lynch to George Bellows. Filled with valuable technical advice as well as wisdom about the place of art and the artist in American society, this classic work continues to be a must-read for anyone interested in the power of creation and the beauty of art.
Introduction by Forbes Watson
NO OTHER AMERICAN PAINTER DREW UNTO HIMSELF such a large, ardently personal group of followers as Robert Henri, whose death, July 12th, 1929, brought to an end a life of uncontaminated devotion to art.
Henri was an inspired teacher with an extraordinary gift for verbal communication, with the personality and prophetic fire that transformed pupils into idolators.
Not only so but he ardently believed in the close relationship of Art to Life—believed that Art is a matter in which not only professionals and students, but everyone is vitally concerned; and his contention is supported by the immense benefit that has accrued to France through its devotion to art and its production.
The list of men now eminent who developed under Henri’s precepts is a long one. He sought, above all things, to cultivate spontaneity. He always attempted to bring out the native gift. He gave his followers complete respect for an American outlook. He showed them the Frenchmen but he did not encourage them to imitate the Frenchmen. Without jingo Henri taught them artistic self-respect. It was not a crime to look at American material with American eyes.
Yet, for all the impulsion which he gave toward what might be called a native school, Henri was the first artist to spread in any broad way the news of the great French painters who made the nineteenth century such a glorious epoch. It is hard for us to realize that only a short generation ago changes in French art were not registered in New York with anything like the present rate of speed. New York had not then become the great financial centre of the world. French paintings were not then bought at such dazzling prices or in anything like the same quantity as now, nor had the collecting of Parisian art, popular as it was more than ten years ago, become the social mania in America that it is today.
Curiously, although William Chase and other prominent American painters and painting teachers, who belonged to the period immediately preceding Henri’s reign, might have brought back from Europe for their future pupils the fresh news of Manet, Degas and the others, it remained for Henri, the great protagonist of a new American school, to be the first prophet to bring to students in any great numbers, both a sense of the importance of the last half of the nineteenth century in French painting and a knowledge of the revived interest in such old masters as Frans Hals, Goya and El Greco.
To be sure Chase talked to his students about El Greco before Henri started teaching, and other painters of Chase’s generation knew these things. But Henri was a far more dynamic teacher than Chase. It required his extraordinary per- sonal magnetism, his fervor, his passion for the verbal communication of his ideas to place before a vast succession of eager youth the new world of vision and to make general, knowledge which before had been too special to be effective. No one who has not felt the magnetic power of Henri, when he had before him an audience of ambitious students hungry for the master’s moving words, can appreciate the emotional devotion to art which he could inspire as could no other teacher. One had to know those students to realize how it could have been possible at that late date for a young painter to combine genuine painting eagerness with a sublime ignorance of the whole world of art that had its being outside of the Henri class. This ignorance in many of his students Henri set himself to overcome by opening their eyes to the fundamental meaning of art. But he did not hold up to them the art of the past or the great contemporary art of France as an ideal to imitate.
One can hardly believe now, were the facts not so easy to establish, that many of the young men and women who studied under him, although so passionately interested in painting, first heard the names of Daumier, Manet, Degas, Goya and a host of others from the lips of Robert Henri. One wonders how some of them ever came to painting at all after exhibiting such surprising ability to dodge knowledge. Henri was not on the lookout for cultivation. Native talent, in whatever crude disguise it might appear, was what he sought. Let the untrained student be as naïve, as profoundly illiterate, as filled with aesthetic misconceptions as possible, Henri disregarded the outward dress and pointed lack of polish. He looked to the man’s potentialities, which he attempted to develop without regard to himself in time and energy. He demanded from his students a first hand emotion received not from art but from life.
When Henri’s classes were at fever heat, impressionism was already being taught in the Pennsylvania Academy. Twachtman, who died in 1902, had inculcated impressionist theories of light in his students at The Art Students League. But Twachtman was an unwilling, comparatively inarticulate teacher, capable of communicating only to the few some sense of his rare and subtle spirit. Henri, on the other hand was, as I have said, an inspired teacher, with an extraordinary gift for verbal communication.
Henri never showed the slightest interest in the more scientific side of impressionism. The blond beauties of sunlit landscapes had no special appeal for him. What he did take from the impressionists and what, after all, was perhaps the most valuable contribution made by the group, the only contribution which they all made in common, was the idea of looking at contemporary life and contemporary scenes with a fresh, unprejudiced, unacademic eye.
His students followed Henri without complaint even when they suffered thereby great material hardships. They did not make the slightest compromise with the ideals which Henri held before them. I can still remember sitting on a bench in Union Square listening to some Henri students in a heated discussion of what Henri had said that evening to his Night School students. The discussion was so ardent that no one hearing it could have believed that these young men, who had worked all day at manual labor, and painted for hours at the Henri School, were about to sleep on a bench in a park because they could not afford to hire a room for the night.
It is difficult for us to realize today how infinitely more arduous exhibition conditions were then for the young painter. Art had not then become news to anything like the degree it has since become news. Dealers were not then chasing each other over the face of the earth to discover the unknown genius. The great official exhibitions were controlled by the prize-winning repeaters. Men who today cannot give their pictures away prospered greatly and were powerful influences on our public and on some of our private collections. As long as these tame specialists controlled the situation the young independent American artist had no opportunity to sell or even to show his work. Henri was hated by the officials because from the first they realized that his attack on them was disinterested. He was not fighting for a theory of painting or for his own individual advancement. He merely demanded from the reactionaries in power a fair and free opportunity for the young independent American artist.
The first American Independent Exhibition which Henri and his friends and pupils inaugurated, the ancestor of the present Independent Society, contained paintings of real power, some of which are now the proudest possessions of collectors and museums, but which then could find no public exhibiting space outside the walls of the Independent.
No one will ever be able to estimate how much Henri contributed to the free and open conditions of today. All over the United States ex-Henri students are to be found. The men and women who were taught by Henri to respect freedom of expression never have forgotten or can forget this invaluable lesson.
To Henri the man and the teacher, the debt that America owes is inestimable. He came at a time when the officials were still in power, and had their heavy paws firmly on the neck of youth and originality. Henri fought for freedom and he gave to his students the courage to conquer officialdom.
The Art Spirit embodies the entire system of Henri’s teaching. To make it more complete he went over his notes and correspondence for twenty-three years. His book is indeed so individual and characteristic that those who knew him can recognize the very tones and manner of utterance that he employed. The book is not only teaching, it is inspiration.
FOREWORD BY THE AUTHOR
MANY STUDENTS HAVE ASKED FOR THIS BOOK, AND that is the reason the fragments which are its composition have been brought together. No effort has been made toward the form of a regular book. In fact the opinions are presented more as paintings are hung on the wall, to be looked at at will and taken as rough sketches for what they are worth. If they have a suggestive value and stimulate to independent thought they will attain the object of their presentation. There are many repeats throughout the work, many times the same subject is taken up and viewed from a different angle or seen in relation to other matters. At the end there is a complete index which will make up for the absence of chapters and sections and the general scarcity of headings. There is no idea that anyone should agree with any of the comments or that anyone should follow the advice given. If they irritate to activity in a quite different direction it will be just as well. The subject is beauty—or happiness, and man’s approach to it is various.
There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.
— Robert Henri
ART WHEN REALLY UNDERSTOOD IS THE PROVINCE OF every human being.
It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.
When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.
The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.
Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums. Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making. Art tends towards balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living—very good things for anyone to be interested in.
THE WORK OF THE ART STUDENT is no light matter. Few have the courage and stamina to see it through. You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. We like sympathy and we like to be in company. It is easier than going it alone. But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this. If you succeed somewhat you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life.
Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them.
We are not here to do what has already been done.
I have little interest in teaching you what I know. I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know. In my office toward you I am simply trying to improve my own environment.
Know what the old masters did. Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established. These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful. They made their language. You make yours. They can help you. All the past can help you.
AN ART STUDENT must be a master from the beginning; that is, he must be master of such as he has. By being now master of such as he has there is promise that he will be master in the future.
A work of art which inspires us comes from no quibbling or uncertain man. It is the manifest of a very positive nature in great enjoyment, and at the very moment the work was done.
It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work. The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself.
For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself. He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound contemplation.
He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.
THE SKETCH HUNTER has delightful days of drifting about among people, in and out of the city, going anywhere, everywhere, stopping as long as he likes—no need to reach any point, moving in any direction following the call of interests. He moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook, a box of oils with a few small panels, the fit of his pocket, or on his drawing pad. Like any hunter he hits or misses. He is looking for what he loves, he tries to capture it. It’s found anywhere, everywhere. Those who are not hunters do not see these things. The hunter is learning to see and to understand—to enjoy.
There are memories of days of this sort, of wonderful driftings in and out of the crowd, of seeing and thinking. Where are the sketches that were made? Some of them are in dusty piles, some turned out to be so good they got frames, some became motives for big pictures, which were either better or worse than the sketches, but they, or rather the states of being and understandings we had at the time of doing them all, are sifting through and leaving their impress on our whole work and life.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE REJECTIONS. Everybody that’s good has gone through it. Don’t let it matter if your works are not “accepted” at once. The better or more personal you are the less likely they are of acceptance. Just remember that the object of painting pictures is not simply to get them in exhibitions. It is all very fine to have your pictures hung, but you are painting for yourself, not for the jury. I had many years of rejections.
Do some great work, Son! Don’t try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscape looks to you—your pleasure in the thing. Wit.
There are lots of people who can make sweet colors, nice tones, nice shapes of landscape, all done in nice broad and intelligent-looking brushwork.
Courbet showed in every work what a man he was, what a head and heart he had.
Every student should put down in some form or other his findings. All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole. No man can be final, but he can record his progress, and whatever he records is so much done in the thrashing out of the whole thing. What he leaves is so much for others to use as stones to step on or stones to avoid.
The student is not an isolated force. He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.
THROUGH ART mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.
The Brotherhood is powerful. It has many members. They are of all places and of all times. The members do not die. One is member to the degree that he can be member, no more, no less. And that part of him that is of the Brotherhood does not die.
The work of the Brotherhood does not deal with surface events. Institutions on the world surface can rise and become powerful and they can destroy each other. Statesmen can put patch upon patch to make things continue to stand still. No matter what may happen on the surface the Brotherhood goes steadily on. It is the evolution of man. Let the surface destroy itself, the Brotherhood will start it again. For in all cases, no matter how strong the surface institutions become, no matter what laws may be laid down, what patches may be made, all change that is real is due to the Brotherhood.
IF THE ARTIST IS ALIVE IN YOU, you may meet Greco nearer than many people, also Plato, Shakespeare, the Greeks.
In certain books—some way in the first few paragraphs you know that you have met a brother.
You pass people on the street, some are for you, some are not.
Here is a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. I enter this sketch and I see him at work and in trouble and I meet him there.
LETTER TO THE CLASS,
ART STUDENTS LEAGUE, 1915
An interest in the subject; something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a portrait. The processes of painting spring from this interest, this definite thing to be said. Completion does not depend on material representation. The work is done when that special thing has been said. The artist starts with an opinion, he organizes the materials, from which and with which he draws, to the expression of that opinion. Every material he employs has become significant of his emotion. The things have no longer their dead meaning but have become living parts of a coördination. A prejudice has existed for the things useful for the expression of this special idea, only things essential to this idea have been used. Nature is there before you. A particular line has been taken through nature. A special and particular vision is making itself clear. The lace on the lady’s sleeve is no longer lace, it is part of her, and in the picture stands as a symbol of her refinement and her delicacy. The color in her cheek is no longer a spot of red, but is the culminating note of an order which runs through every part of the canvas signifying her sensitiveness and her health.
To start with a deep impression, the best, the most interesting, the deepest you can have of the model; to preserve this vision throughout the work; to see nothing else; to admit of no digression from it; choosing only from the model the signs of it; will lead to an organic work. Every element in the picture will be constructive, constructive of an idea, expressive of an emotion. Every factor in the painting will have beauty because in its place in the organization it is doing its living part. It will be living line, living form, living color. Because of its adjustment, it is given its greatest power of expansion. It is only through a sense of the right relation of things that freedom can be obtained.
As different as ideas and emotions are, there can be no set rule laid down for the making of pictures, but for students found working in a certain line suggestions may be made. There is a certain common sense in procedure which may be basic for all, and there are processes safe to suggest, if only to be used as points of departure, to those who have not already developed a satisfying use of their materials.
It is on this ground that I offer you the following: With your model posing as he does in the same position every day of a week you have choice of differing modes of study, and it is up to you to decide well which will be the most profitable, which will carry you further. Some will work the entire week on the same canvas and others will find it an advantage to make an entirely new start every day, preserving as far as possible the canvases of the early days to compare with the work in hand, and making these comparisons, sitting in judgment on them and coming to decision as to what to do next. Some will find it advisable to start a canvas number one on the first day, and a canvas number two on the second, and alternating these two canvases for the rest of the week, they will in a sort of duel teach each other much. I myself have found it useful to work on two canvases, alternating them with every rest of the model. One does not sleep in this kind of work, there is an excitement in it that can improve the sometimes dying energies in a classroom in the later days of the week. Every mode has its virtues and its vices, but the student who is a student and attending to his own case will in the mode just described crowd into a week a lot of experience in commencing a work, and he will come to a very great knowledge of his understanding and his possible visions of the subject. The value of repeated studies of beginnings of a painting cannot be over-estimated. Those who cannot begin do not finish.
And for all who continue to work on the same canvas let me suggest that your struggle throughout the week should be to perfect the beginning of your painting. If you are thinking and seeing your own work and the work about you, you must observe how general is the failure in the progress of works. The fact is, finish cannot be separated from a perfect commencement.
Insist then, on the beauty of form and color to be obtained from the composition of the largest masses, the four or five large masses which cover your canvas. Let these above all things have fine shapes, have fine colors. Let them be as meaningful of your subject as they possibly can be. It is wonderful how much real finish can be obtained through them, how much of gesture and modeling can be obtained through their contours, what satisfactions can be obtained from their fine measures in area, color and value. Most students and most painters in fact rush over this; they are in a hurry to get on to other matters, minor matters.
In dealing with these four or five masses in portraiture, the mass of the face is the most important and should be considered as principal to the other masses, even though the other masses be more brilliant or striking in themselves. Also the mass of the head should be considered as principal to any feature of the head. The beauty of the larger mass is primary to and is essential to the lesser mass.