Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on December 1, 2007 with permission of the author and the Portland Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Portland Museum of Art:

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Robert Henri & His Circle: The Allure of the Maine Coast

by Jessica F. Nicoll

 

Robert Henri looms large in the history of American art. He is, perhaps, best known as the renegade organizer of "The Eight," a group of artists that, in 1908, publicly rejected the sovereignty of New York's National Academy of Design and exhibited outside its auspices. That rebellion was linked to the stance, taken by Henri and other members of "The Ashcan School," that art should be relevant to contemporary life rather than conform to standards of popular taste.[1] Deemed vulgar at the time, their paintings exuberantly captured the grittier sides of urban life: the smokestacks, back alleys, and teeming populace of New York at the turn of the century

Henri's power to form coalitions and effect change stemmed from his passionate commitment to the integration of art and life. The ardency with which he articulated his creative philosophy energized a generation of artists and earned him a loyal following. Henri found himself at the center of an artistic community that included John Sloan, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Luks -- friends from his early years in Philadelphia -- and his students, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Guy Pène du Bois, Edward Hopper, and Carl Sprinchorn.

Henri's first visit to Maine came on the heels of a burst of activity as he worked to establish himself in New York City. His second year in the city began and ended with his first, one-man exhibitions in New York. In the spring of 1902, the Macbeth Gallery mounted a show of his recent work and in November, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened an exhibition of forty-two paintings, which then traveled to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.[2]

During the 1902 - 1903 season Henri also joined the faculty of the New York School of Art. He was honored by the invitation, for the school, founded in 1896 by William Merritt Chase, was one of the city's leading art academies; but he accepted the position with some trepidation, fearful that it would seriously erode his painting time.

By the spring of 1903 Henri was looking for a place to spend the summer where he could "work and loaf by turns."[3] The solution presented itself when the painter Edward Willis Redfield, one of Henri's best friends from his student years at the Pennsylvania Academy, extended an invitation to join him in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

Henri visited nearby Monhegan Island and in four days he completed twenty-five small oil sketches, more than half the number he had painted during two and a half weeks in Boothbay Harbor. When he was called away to teach at the Shinnecock School of Drawing and Painting -- the New York School's summer session -- he resolved to return to Monhegan Island with his wife, Linda, for a longer stay.

At this early point in his career, Henri's major interest was in painting landscapes, while his work in portraiture was driven largely by commissions. City landscapes, painted in Paris in the 1890s, had brought his first success. When he settled in New York he recreated that success by painting views of the city's streets and parks.

Henri returned to Monhegan Island with his wife later that summer and immersed himself in painting seascapes. His goal was to create paintings that had the quality of the marines he most admired: works that were completely unified, conveying a powerful evocation of the sea, not composites of clichéd images of the coast. Henri responded to the elemental drama of the Maine coast, the relentless struggle between sea and shore. In all, he painted twenty-six canvases and 131 small paintings on panel. When he exhausted his supply of wooden panels, he began painting on their backs.[4]

Henri also followed through on his idea to establish a summer studio on Monhegan. Letters to his parents tell he was engaged in constant dialogue with islanders about purchasing land. With financial assistance from his father, Henri purchased a small inland lot that offered a view of the harbor. When he and Linda left Monhegan at the end of September, it was expected that they would return annually. However, the accelerating pace of Henri's career, as an artist and a teacher, and his wife's death in 1906 prevented his return for eight years.

Joining the ranks of Henri's students in the fall of 1903 were Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, the latter having enrolled full-time at the school after taking Henri's night class the previous year. Both artists, like dozens who would follow, publicly acknowledged the potent influence that Henri had on their development.

Kent was the first student that Henri encouraged to go to Monhegan. He seemed to know intuitively that the island's rugged beauty would inspire the young artist. At the end of Kent's second year at the New York School of Art he set off for Monhegan, armed with letters of introduction from Henri. Nearly fifty years later, Kent recalled that Monhegan provided "material" that sparked "such feverish activity in painting as I had never known."[5]

Monhegan was the first of the remote, northern locales that inspired some of Kent's most lasting images. His sense of the island's isolation, the self-sufficiency of its residents, and the ever-present battle with natural forces fed his desire to create art that would awaken viewers "to the beauty of our world and to the dignity of man."[6] As he threw himself into his work, the stylistic influence of his teachers, Henri, Chase, and Abbott Thayer -- so evident in his early cityscapes and views of New Hampshire -- rapidly fell away. Kent credited this maturation of his style to the personal maturity that came from living on his own on the island.

Kent was as impressed by Monhegan's residents as by its dramatic and varied scenery. In extolling the island's virtues, he wrote to Henri, "I love the fishermen here. I never in my life saw such a fine kind-hearted set of people. I'd like to be one of them."[7 ] His first visit to the island lasted six months; he left only to visit his family in Tarrytown, New York, for the Christmas holidays. He went back to Monhegan in April 1906, prepared to stay indefinitely. Like Henri, he bought land on Horn's Hill and, utilizing his experience as an architectural draughtsman, designed and built a small house. To support himself, he took jobs drilling wells, repairing roofs, emptying privies, and lobster fishing.

Kent's efforts to be a native were in the service of his art; his actions carried to an extreme Henri's philosophy of opening oneself to a subject. At the same time he was a Monhegan fisherman, Kent was also a New York artist. When he had created a sizable body of work, he left Monhegan to exhibit his paintings in New York.

In March 1907, Kent packed fourteen canvases to be exhibited at New York's Clausen Gallery. En route, he wrote to Henri, asking for help installing the exhibition, which opened on April 1st.[8] Although the gallery did not succeed in selling any of the paintings (priced from $200 to $600), the exhibition announced Kent's arrival.

Kent's "arrival" in the New York art world marked the beginning of a gradual distancing from the world of Monhegan. Kent's immersion in island life abated as new commitments summoned him away. After his 1908 marriage to Kathleen Whiting, Abbott Thayer's niece, he became a summer resident, like most of the other artists that visited Monhegan. The responsibilities of marriage and then fatherhood necessitated that Kent move back to New York, where he could work as an architectural draughtsman. To maintain his involvement with art, he enrolled in night classes at a school that Henri established in 1909. The summers became his major season for painting, and in 1910 he and Julius Golz, another Henri student, established the Monhegan Summer School of Art.

That year, Kathleen chose not to return to Monhegan with him, having discovered his long-term liaison with an island woman. When Kent left Monhegan for New York in the winter of 1910, he returned to a strained marriage and the drudgery of his architectural job. A bright spot appeared when his friend and employer, George Chappell, offered the use of a large gallery in the headquarters of the Society of Beaux Arts Architects for an independent exhibition.

Henri was enthusiastic when his student sought to enlist his help, but was dismayed by Kent's idea of excluding any artist who had exhibited at the National Academy of Design. He believed that talent should be their only criterion and refused to go along with Kent's punitive plan. The disagreement drew battle lines and artists allied themselves with either Henri or Kent. In the end, the 1911 Independent Exhibition featured the work of only eleven artists, including George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Guy Pène du Bois, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin. The rift between Henri and Kent never fully mended.

George Bellows was among those who sided most closely with Henri. In 1904, Bellows had left his home in Ohio to study at the New York School of Art. He later recalled, "I found myself in my first art school under Robert Henri having never heard of him before.... My life begins at this point."[9] He was, by all accounts, a brilliant student who, despite an early indebtedness to Henri's style, rapidly emerged as a major talent. He took New York by storm with his raw depictions of the city's waterfront and boxing clubs, and by 1907 his work had been accepted for exhibition at the National Academy.

Bellows's admiration for the Maine paintings of both Kent and Henri instilled a desire to experience Monhegan for himself. The drama of opposing forces attracted Bellows, and he was as interested to observe them in nature as in the boxing ring. The opportunity to go to Monhegan arose in 1911, when Henri invited Bellows along on his first trip back to the island since 1903. They were joined by Randall Davey, a young artist who began studying with Henri in 1909. Early in August they settled in at the Monhegan House, the summer hotel where Henri had stayed on his earlier visit.

During the four weeks that Bellows spent on Monhegan, he wrote almost daily to Emma, his bride of less than a year who was in the last weeks of pregnancy. Interwoven with his expressions of love and concern for her well-being are rich details about his responses to the island, the work he was accomplishing, and his interactions with his companions.

Work for the trio of artists got off to a slow start. The materials they had ordered from their New York supplier took almost two weeks to arrive. The difficulty in procuring supplies and the rate at which they were used once they arrived was a continual problem for artists on the island. Transporting their materials over Monhegan's rough terrain was a major undertaking as well. Although the island is small, the very qualities that attract artists to it -- dense forests, steep headlands, towering rocks -- make it a challenge to hike with canvases, easels, paint boxes, and palettes.

Bellows's letters to Emma reveal that while he found much there that was beautiful, only a small proportion of it had the power to inspire him. He was preoccupied with thoughts of life and eternity, prompted in part by his union with Emma and the impending birth of their child; those musings entered his work. The paintings he was happiest with all portray the land and the sea as monumental and infinite, with man shown as relatively insignificant.

Bellows was a harsh judge of his own work; it was rare for him to proclaim, with confidence, that something was a "masterpiece." Criticism, by oneself and one's peers, was an important part of Henri's process. Long after he had ceased to be Bellows's teacher, he included him in the circle that held critiques at his studio. On Monhegan, the artists met almost nightly to review the day's work.

Meanwhile, Henri was proving to be as prolific as on his 1903 visit. By the time he left Monhegan in late September he had painted more than 300 pictures, most of them on 12 x I5-inch wooden panels.[10] The vigor with which he attacked his subject is somewhat surprising, since he had been increasingly absorbed with portraiture and had done little with marines in eight years. He once again put all his energy into painting hundreds of studies of the surf and rocks under all conditions. The later paintings have a more subtle color sense, and Henri's characteristic slashing brushstrokes are not as nervous as in the earlier work. A selection of the paintings was exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery almost immediately upon Henri's return to New York. Henri continued to show the works throughout the teens, but the 1911 paintings represent his last major foray into marine painting.

In contrast, Bellows's Maine pictures marked a new direction in his work. Following his return to New York, he used the Monhegan paintings as the basis for four new canvases: Evening Swell, The Sea, Three Rollers, and The Rich Woods. These large-scale studio works amount to a digest of the subjects that had attracted him on the island. He was eager to return to Monhegan the following year, but Emma convinced him to spend the summer in the Catskills instead, where he completed only ten small landscapes.[11]

At the end of that fruitless summer, Bellows threw himself into assisting with the organization of the Armory Show, which included five of his paintings. In many ways, that exhibition was heir to the American Independent movement begun five years earlier by Henri, but when the show opened in February 1913 it was the work of European modernists that electrified the art world. Bellows was among those awestruck by the innovations of Picasso and Renoir, but it was the vivid colors of the Fauves, such as Matisse and Derain, that profoundly affected him.

When he persuaded Emma to go with him to Monhegan that summer and fall, it was his desire to return to familiar terrain and explore the new ideas he encountered at the Armory Show. Bellows was joined by Randall Davey and Leon Kroll. When Kroll returned from studying in Europe in 1910, he met Bellows and through him, Henri and his circle. He was one of the few Henri intimates who had not been one of his students. Kroll, like Bellows, took the influence of the Armory Show with him to Monhegan, reinforcing an earlier impact of Cézanne on his style. The artists worked closely that summer, often sharing subjects and materials, as supplies ran low.

Bellows's 1913 paintings have an exuberance that distinguish them from his earlier, more somber Maine pictures. He returned to many of the same subjects, particularly surf, but he framed them from a closer vantage point and painted them with broad, animated brush strokes and vibrant, expressive colors. As summer changed to fall, Bellows's application of color became more exaggerated, giving it emotional power.

The 1914 visit to Monhegan was distinctly different from earlier summers on the island. The previous year, "the artist's colony at Monhegan" had been an energetic group including Davey, Kroll, Homer Boss, Robert Sewall, J. C. McPherson, and Andrew Dasburg. The following year, Bellows was joined only by Randall Davey. He wrote to Henri, "I hope the war won't wreck the artists financially."[12] The effects of World War I were already being felt on Monhegan, and concerns about the island's vulnerability to attack discouraged the Bellows family from returning.

The summer of 1915 found Henri, Bellows, and Kroll renting houses in Ogunquit, on the southern coast of Maine. Easier to get to and more secure from the threat of war, Ogunquit had an established reputation as an artists' colony. That identity had first been secured when Charles Woodbury started a summer art school there in the late nineteenth century. During the period when Henri and his circle were in residence, there was a lively community of New York artists based at the Summer School of Graphic Art established by Hamilton Easter Field in 1911.

Foggy, cold, and rainy weather kept inspiration at bay. Henri wrote to his mother, "Here it was distressingly wet and chill. For me it has not been so bad for I have had my big gypsy camp to draw from and I would stand anything for good models."[13] The community of gypsies camped outside Ogunquit salvaged the summer for Henri, providing rich material for portraits.

Inspired by the paintings of Frans Hals, he had been increasingly involved in genre portraits, painting Dutch peasants in Holland, Flamenco dancers in Spain, and Gaelic types in Ireland. A trip to Southern California in 1914 had sparked a new period of experimentation in Henri's portraiture, as he expanded the ethnic and cultural diversity of his portrait subjects, focusing particularly on Native and Asian Americans.

Bellows, too, pursued his interest in portraiture that summer. The only member of the group who seemed to respond to Ogunquit's landscape was Edward Hopper. He had spent the previous summer there and had liked it enough to return. Hopper was in a period of transition from the time he left the New York School of Art in 1906 until his first success with a one-man show at the Whitney Studio Club in 1920. During that time he continued to train himself, as Henri had instructed, through precise observation of nature. First, on two formative trips to Paris and, beginning in 1912, on visits to coastal Massachusetts and Maine. In Ogunquit, he painted country roads, local buildings, and the rocky coastline. Many of the paintings already have his characteristic air of isolation, while other works show him experimenting with composition and contrasting color.

Hopper was among the artists invited to exhibit at the MacDowell Club as part of a program of exhibitions conceived by Henri. Begun in 1911, they allowed Henri to put his ideal of independent, artist-organized exhibitions into practice on a continuing basis. Hopper exhibited Ogunquit paintings as part of that group in 1915 along with Bellows, Henri, and Kroll. A review of that exhibition exclaimed, "After a succession of poor exhibitions so far this season, the MacDowell Club yesterday opened one of the most interesting displays of pictures it has ever shown. Twelve artists, mainly of the group known as the 'Robert Henri School' show new works."[14]

In the summer of 1916, and for the next several years, Hopper ventured further north to Monhegan, one of the few artists to go there during the war. For portions of at least two visits he was in the company of two other Henri students, Guy Pène du Bois and Clarence Chatterton.

His approach to painting while on Monhegan was strikingly similar to Henri's. He painted a series of small oil studies of the landscape, on wooden panels usually 9_ x 13 inches. He was less attracted to the dynamism of the coast than to its mass. He painted many views of Blackhead and the rock formations along the coast, using light and shadow to give them an anchored solidity. The antithesis of Kent, who had thrown himself into the life of the world he had discovered, Hopper found success in painting by turning inward.

The attraction of Maine was intensely personal for each of Henri's students that went there. As Kroll said, to look at their work was to see a portrait of the artist.[15] Their Maine paintings reveal not only their technical development but also their individual characters and interests. Particularly for Kent and Bellows, time spent in Maine nurtured their growth, as they shed the influence of their teachers and evolved their mature styles. Maine was their teacher's final gift. Henri encouraged only a select group of his students to experience the State. There they found the true meaning of his lessons of creative freedom and openness. As with Henri, Maine's influence, absorbed and synthesized by these artists,

1 "The Eight" included Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur Davies, and Ernest Lawson. Their February 1908 exhibition at New York's Macbeth Gallery attracted over 7,000 visitors during the two weeks it was on view. "The Ashcan School" consisted of Henri, Sloan, Luks, Glackens, Shinn, and George Bellows.

2 William Innes Homer, Robert Henri and His Circle (New York: Hacker Books, 1988) pp. 108-110.

3 Redfield to Henri, 24 April 1903, Henri Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

4 Henri Record Book B, courtesy of Mrs. Janet LeClair.

5 Rockwell Kent, It's Me O Lord (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1955), It's Me O Lord, p. 120.

6 Kent, It's Me O Lord, p 139.

7 Kent to Henri, 12 July 1905, Henri Papers.

8 Kent to Henri, 23 March 1907, Henri Papers.

9 Quoted in Charles W. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York: Reynal and Company, 1965), p. 37.

10 Henri Record Books F and G, entries for August - September 1911.

11 Franklin Kelly, "'So Clean and Cold': Bellows and the Sea," in The Paintings of George Bellows (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992), "Bellows and the Sea," p. 151.

12 Bellows to Henri, 21 August 1914, Henri Papers.

13 Henri to Theresa Lee, August 1915, Henri Papers.

14 New York Herald (18 November 1915): 13.

15 Leon Kroll, A Spoken Memoir, Nancy Hale and Fredson Bowers, eds. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), A Spoken Memoir, p. 50.

-- Adapted from the accompanying exhibition catalogue.


About the author:

Jessica Nicoll is the director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA. Previously, she was chief curator and William and Helen Thon Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art and curator of exhibits at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She holds an M.A. from the Winterthur Program in early American culture at the University of Delaware and a B.A. in art history and American studies from Smith College

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 1, 2007, with permission of the author and Portland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on September 6, 2007. Ms. Nicoll's article pertains to an exhibition entitled The Allure of the Maine Coast: Robert Henri and His Circle, 1903 - 1918, which was on view June - October This text was also published in the August - September 1995 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen and Kristen Levesque, director of marketing and public relations at the Portland Museum of Art, for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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and images of dozens of Robert Henri paintings including La Reina Mora courtesy of The Athenaeum by clicking here.

Robert Henri's last name is pronounced as "HEN-rye."

 

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